The Hakawati is a big, giant treat of a book, which is not to
say that it's an easy read, or that it isn't packed with more meaty fare closer
to the bone. Rabih Alameddine shines as a storyteller and a novelist, and
nowhere are the distinctions between the two vocations more evident than in this
lovely, captivating tome. As a storyteller, Alameddine dazzles us with bejeweled
adventure stories of lust and love, murder, scandal, and war. As a novelist, he
crafts a complex structure, shaping subtle mirrors between the flights of fancy
and the central story of a family in war-torn Beirut, gently shifting the
perspective until, like a mosaic, the tiny pieces begin to take shape, and the
real picture of the novel emerges.
Like a merry-making band of magic carpets, the folk tales and adventure stories woven into the central story of a Lebanese family whisk the reader away again and again, acting as both mischievous troublemakers and sage guides. Part of the great joy of reading The Hakawati is the escapist pleasure found in these fanciful digressions, but this is also one of its challenges. Early in the novel, I found myself struggling to keep the thread of the multiple storylines as they pop in and out, nearly unannounced, sometimes each only sticking around for a paragraph or two before disappearing for pages and pages. Frustrated, but bewitched by Alameddine's fine prose and addictive tales, I stuck with it, and ceased to be concerned with putting the pieces together, and was ultimately rewarded for shirking my assumed duties as a reader. I lost myself in tales of Fatima and her jinnis, sultans and their great battles, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar reinvented and made real, and watched as they sent echoes into the deeper, bleaker story of a family and their own stories, ancient legacies and culture rent by war.
The Hakawati, like any good novel, isn't for everyone. Reading it takes a little practice, a little pacing, and if you're really lucky, one empty weekend to devour it whole. My advice to potential readers is this: Surrender to this hakawati. Get on his magic carpet, and let him tell you a story. In fact, let him tell you one thousand stories. He'll handle all the details, and you can sit back and enjoy the ride.
This review was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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