Rabih Alameddine: I, The Divine

Rabih Alameddine is insane. His Hakawati is Arabian Nights on drugs, a dizzying magic carpet ride. When I thought a book’s structure could not get crazier, I end up with this: I, The Divine. A novel in first chapters. Yes, each section is Chapter One all throughout the book! With the exception of the Prologue on page 110 and the Introduction at the very end!

But I cannot recommend this author to everyone. He will make readers feel uncomfortable. There are obscenities. Lots of it. But these obscenities are often realities — war, murder, suicide, rape. With the Lebanese Civil War as backdrop, and through the main character and her family, we are shown how a nation’s events shape the lives of its people.

He seems to be the kind of writer who loves giving the reader a good challenge; one has to be sensitive to allusions and metaphors otherwise the point is overlooked. But amidst these dark and heavy themes, he surprises you by making you laugh! I repeat, Rabih Alameddine is insane…

…but who also happens to be a painter who has exhibited in London, New York, and Paris. This explains the colorful passages, and in his two works that I’ve read, references to art and artists adorn his pages. In one of the earlier first chapters, he quotes the artist, John Dwyer McLaughlin, “These Asian paintings I could get into and they made me wonder who I was. By contrast, Western painters tried to tell me who they were.”

This, to me, was a signpost that signaled how this book is, above anything else, about identity, a comparison of Eastern and Western thought, and an additional reflection to my Fertile Crescent literary tapestry on individuality and community. By the end of the book, this is confirmed:

“If I wanted to know about lion, I had to look at the entire pride. I had to look at it not as a single organism per se, but as a new unit much larger than the sum of its parts… I could not begin to fathom what being a lion was if I only looked at each lion individually, or even at the relationships between the lions. All of them together, not all of them individually summed up, but all of them as a dynamic organism, were the species; all were the word lion.

I had tried to write my memoir by telling an imaginary reader to listen to my story. Come learn about me, I said. I have a great story to tell you because I have led an interesting life. Come meet me. But how can I expect readers to know who I am if I do not tell them about my family, my friends, the relationships in my life? Who am I if not where I fit in the world, where I fit in the lives of the people dear to me? I have to explain how the individual participated in the larger organism, to show how I fit into this larger whole. So instead of telling the reader, Come meet me, I have to say something else.
Come meet my family.
Come meet my friends.
Come here, I say.
Come meet my pride.”

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