Lost Allusions

The Angel of History BY Rabih Alameddine. Atlantic Monthly Press. Hardcover. 26.

The cover of The Angel of History

It is unlikely that Aaliya Saleh, the narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s 2014 novel, An Unnecessary Woman, and Jacob, the protagonist of his latest, The Angel of History, would pass each other in the street, but if they did they would probably not speak. Aaliya is a misanthropic seventy-two-year-old recluse who, despite the violence raging outside her Beirut apartment during the decades, has devoted herself to the useless task of translating notable novels into Arabic. What makes her work useless (or “unnecessary”) is that these are secondary translations, based on prior renditions. Her version of Crime and Punishment, for example, is based on a French translation of the Russian. Jacob, by contrast, is a raffish poet who lives in San Francisco and once reveled in its thriving gay community. The son of a whore who spent much of his childhood in an Egyptian brothel, Jacob, né Ya’qub, describes himself as “the congenital immigrant.” Unlike Aaliya, who remains rooted in the Lebanese city she never leaves, he is a vagabond.

And yet, despite external differences, Aaliya and Jacob share a profound loneliness. They both filter experiences through literary texts—Aaliya through the translations she translates, and Jacob through a network of allusions, to Auden, Borges, Bulgakov, Dante, Milton, and others. Literature enables both to contemplate the chaos of their lives, for the most part perceptively (although when Jacob meets a pair of strangers named Tom and Bernhard, Alameddine’s homage to Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard verges on becoming gawky and gratuitous).

The Angel of History begins with twin epigraphs, one, by Marc Augé, on the necessity to forget, and the other, by Milan Kundera, on the crucial struggle to remember. Framed by a continuing conversation between Satan, who torments mortals with painful memories, and Death, “the master of Lethe,” the entire novel is built on a dialectic between the urge to recall and the urge to erase. The narrative by and about Jacob that emerges in fits and starts is a set of variations on the paradox that “you can’t forget if you don’t remember, and you can’t remember without forgetting.”

Honoring Satan’s warning that “linearity can be boring,” Alameddine jumps around in space and time and varies the narrative perspective, shifting from Jacob’s voice to the voices of Satan and the angels he interviews. Alerted to the complexities of memory, a patient reader learns that Jacob was conceived on an elegant rug in a posh Beirut apartment. When the owners discover that their fourteen-year-old son has been dallying with the Yemeni chambermaid, they send her packing. She gives birth to Ya’qub, journeys to Sana’a, and takes up prostitution. She is recruited by genial Auntie Badeea to join a brothel in Cairo, where young Ya’qub learns to read and write. Eventually, the postcards he sends the father he has never seen are answered by an invitation to join him in Beirut. However, once in Lebanon, the child is consigned to a French Catholic orphanage, where he is bullied by the other boys (and begins to cultivate his literary talents). He eventually makes his tortuous way to San Francisco during the efflorescence of its gay culture (born in Amman, Alameddine is said to divide his time now between Beirut and San Francisco). In the novel’s present—two decades after the AIDS epidemic that brought excruciating death to his six closest friends, including his lover, Doc—Jacob characterizes the place today as “a cretinous provincial dump surrounded by pretentious superficially amicable cretins.” Jacob celebrates his alienation, declaring: “I was born homeless, countryless, raceless, didn’t belong to either my father’s family or my mother’s, no one could claim me, or wanted to.” But searing memories haunt him. Emotionally exhausted, he spends the day at a psychiatric clinic trying to persuade the authorities to commit him. He is suffering from a kind of Castro District PTSD, a delayed response to the demise of everyone he loved. Jacob’s lesbian housemate Odette fears that he is suicidal. But even as Death, the emperor of oblivion, stands ready to receive Jacob, Satan works to draw the story out.

A young poet asks Jacob whether he saw Angels in America during its first run. Like Tony Kushner’s play, The Angel of History is an elegy for a lost generation of gay men. It is also a structurally inventive bildungsroman, the story of how Ya’qub, the pet brat in a Cairo bordello, grows up to be Jacob, suffering midlife despondency in Northern California. Since he identifies himself as a poet, it is also a Künstlerroman, the portrait of a struggling artist struggling with his life more than his art. Desolated by AIDS, he has even given up verse for prose, though we are told he enjoys a formidable reputation as a poet.

Alameddine quickens the novel with telling details—for example, twenty years after Doc’s death, Jacob still automatically cracks enough eggs to make breakfast omelets for two. A vividly rendered account of Jacob’s masochistic interlude with a leather dominator who abuses him with whips and ropes makes credible his recollection that “I relished the ecstasy of martyrdom.” But much of the story—filtered through Jacob’s notebooks and conversations between Death, Satan, and a succession of angels—is an abstraction. We learn few details about Doc; he remains a wraithlike place-marker, a surrogate for the Unknown AIDS Victim.

Jacob, we are told, earns his living as a low-level employee at a law firm, but we rarely see what working in that office is really like. More disappointing is the fact that, though Jacob considers his true profession to be poet—writing, like Alameddine himself, in his third language, after Arabic and French—such lines as these offer scant evidence of literary accomplishment: “Sorrow makes for lousy honey, / Tears do not make good ink. / Let winter return.” Perhaps the point is that Jacob is as much a failure at poetry as everything else. Nevertheless, The Angel of History marks the triumph of memory over oblivion. Aaliya Saleh might not have translated this brave novel of loss and cultural displacement. But it’s easy to imagine her being moved by it.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005) and The Translingual Imagination (University of Nebraska Press, 2000).