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06.04.08

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Phaedra

The Hakawati: A Story

By Traci Hukill


Alone, each of the dozen story lines woven together in this gorgeous tapestry of a novel would be a compelling enough tale. That's the payoff for choosing your cast of characters largely from holy books and legend. The Hakawati teems with figures that come equipped with their own harrowing ordeals and sublime triumphs: doddering Abraham and Sarah, Baybers the magnanimous slave-turned-prince, Fatima the voluptuous Persephone figure who ventures to the underworld to confront and ultimately seduce the three-eyed, flame-haired jinni Afreet-Jehanam. There are magic carpets, petty jealousies, grotesque acts of violence and superhuman courage—all the ingredients of a fantastic read, especially if you don't mind the tragicannibalistic elements so beloved of ancient Mediterranean cultures. Rabih Alameddine (I, The Divine) could have constructed a pretty thing from these elements, but into this richly textured matrix he sets the contemporary story of Osama al-Kharrat. The Americanized scion of a wealthy Lebanese family, Osama has returned to Beirut to stand watch over his father's deathbed. As he reconnects with family and reflects on a childhood shaped by civil war, old feuds and idiosyncratic relatives, time and fate collapse. Grandpa was a hakawati (professional storyteller), nicknamed "the exaggerator" by a benefactor; the epithet is now the family name, and in this, his homecoming, the adult Osama steps into the family tradition of fantastical tale-telling, seeing in the faces around him the incarnations of mythopoetic figures.

Alameddine's touch with character is knowing and precise; the moderns are modern, with foibles any reader could recognize, while the legendary heroes and rapscallions are drawn more broadly, like the cartoons they are. Where Alameddine flies without a net is in the structure of this book. The narrative bounces madly between present, past and mythic eternity, sometimes spending just a paragraph or two in a setting before blazing off again as if in a crisis of attention deficit. There are so many plots that their dyes begin to run together, but then, that could very well be the point. There is really only one story that matters to any of us: our own. All other plots are embellishment. (By Rabih Alameddine; Knopf; 513 pages; $25.95 hardback)


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