The Angel of History
by Rabih Alameddine
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Published October 4, 2016
304 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
June 12, 2017
Above the gilded flames (or is it a the edge of a wing?*) that take up most of the space of the cover of Rabih Alameddine’s (born in Jordan in 1959) novel The Angel of History (2016) is the assertion from Michael Chabon that Alameddine is one of the most daring writer.
The novel is plenty daring, daring the reader to accept that Satan, advocate of remembrance, and his son Death, advocate of forgetting being in the fourteen saints (some of them demoted since Vatican II) who have protected Jacob (né Ya’qub), whose sanity is tottering under the burden of mourning for the rest of his social circle whom he nursed through AIDS to death during the 1980s, including the love of his life, Doc, a promiscuous pediatrician, and his Irish master, Gregory.
Doc’s mother ignored her son while he was dying, then managed to get into the apartment where he lived with Jacob and ransack it, including taking many things (including his manuscripts) of Jacob’s. This resonates with what I experienced with the death of one of my friends who had a detailed will that was ignored by his family when they emptied his apartment and hauled everything he owned back to Missouri.
Circa 1980, I was one of seven men who gathered for holiday celebrations. I am not the sole survivor, as Jacob is, but four died of AIDS, another was incapacitated in his early 30s by a stroke. I was not the prime caregiver of any of the others (circa 1990 my boss told me he was living with AIDS, while I seemed to be dying of HIV-infection), so my experience differs some in kind as well as in quantity from Jacob’s, but I know something of the depression of losing one’s social circle, as Jacob did, and of not wanting to remember the devastation.
Jacob has other traumas weighing on him, including been sent off by his Yemen-born mother, a Cairo prostitute, to his Lebanese Druze father who placed him in a boarding school run by Catholic nuns, where he was so brutally beaten on graduation day that he had to be airlifted to Stockholm for treatment. That was after years of being ostracized and attempting to be invisible:
I would be mocked by anyone who saw me, and truly I could not afford to be noticeable in any way. I lived in the safety of not being seen.
His mother disappeared on her hajj, and Jacob found the ecstasies of masochism as well as being part of a social circle in San Francisco. Satan blocked Death from taking him, and is conferring with him and interviewing in turn each of the fourteen protector saints in Jacob’s apartment while Jacob is seeking to be admitted to the psychiatric crisis facility at St. Francis Hospital, near Japantown in San Francisco. He thinks three must be no anti-psychotic medications and is seeking a supervised rest.
His cat, whom he named Behemoth in honor of the cat in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita, takes to Satan, but not to some of the saints (especially Denis, carrying his head). I don’t think that the saints are sufficiently differentiated—as characters, though there iconographic aspects are distinct. I think that Satan did not need to call witnesses and could just have debated Jacob’s history with Death.
There are also two elaborate set pieces that include neither Jacob nor any other characters from the rest of the book. The first is a personified drone that lands in the sand of Yemen and takes a fancy to a youth named Mohammed, before being rescued by U.S. forces and put back to work. The second is narrated by a straight man form Muncie, Indiana, who is considering taking a job in NYC. He and his vivacious and beautiful wife attend a party thrown by his gay boss-to-be, who keeps a tamed Arab in a cage. Like this novel needed more going on than Jacob’s fraught history and supernatural attendants? I don’t think so.
Jacob considered himself a poet back in his prime, but has ceased trying to write poems. He believed/believes (as do I) that “mediocre poetry is worse than terrible, it’s a sin” (well, at least an abomination). Judging my the samples in the book, I think he’s that kind of sinner (though I don’t much like the quatrain included from Auden, either).
For all its excesses, not least the flood of literary references and pop culture of the 1990s ones, I thought The Angel of History surprisingly readable and less disjointed than it at first seems to be. The flashbacks of narrating his life to his silent dead-lover (Doc) are pretty much chronological, dovetailing with the recollections of Satan and the saints. And the dismay at the sanitized (heteronormative) gay millennials resonates with me. 1
There is a lot of pain explored in Almeddine’s novel, but also a lot of mordant humor pops up.
I think the title story of Alameddine’s second book, The Perv, is more daring and that that volume also includes some of his best work (“A Flight to Paris,” “My Grandmother,” “The Grandmaster,” “Remembering Nasser”), while the many-voiced Koolaids is an even more biting take on the AIDS holocaust.
At a launch of the paperback edition at the San Francisco Public Library (6 December 2017) I commented that so much was stuffed into the book that, if I did not know better, I’d have thought it was his first and that the author was unsure whether he would have another chance. In a way I was right: He said that he always believes that whatever book he is writing will be his last one, while doubting he will finish even it.
I discussed both books in 21st-Century Representations of Muslim Homosexualities.
* * The paperback has a pair of wings. I told Alameddine that I thought the hardcover cover was flames, and he said it was. BTW, he has three cats, none named Behemoth, and said the book was entirely fiction. For instance, he has never had a lover die of AIDS, though many friends have.
©2016, 2017, Stephen O. Murray
- It is St. Pantaleon who dejectedly exclaims, “Once they were proud to explore every crevice of life in the margins, now their ambition is just to get along”; Jacob himself reflects, “We were hothouse flowers, we bloomed and perished, wild, exuberantly colorful, attention-grabbing, out of season, out of place, out of context.” ↩