In Rabih Alameddine's new novel The Hakawati, Osama al-Kharrat returns to his native Beirut after many years in America to see his dying father. There, feeling "foreign to myself," he reunites with relatives and friends to share tales from many eras, cultures, and walks of life. Thus this hefty offering by the author of Koolaids, The Perv, and I, the Divine is not just a story within a story but hundreds of stories within a story, a 513-page macramé with myriad threads.
"Once I understood what kind of book I was writing, I spread the word ... that I was looking for stories," says Alameddine, who divides his time between Beirut and San Francisco and will be at Cody's Books (2201 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) on April 29. "I received hundreds of calls from acquaintances, long-lost relatives, strangers who swore they were relatives, talkers all, wanting to tell me their stories ... of growing up in the mountains of Lebanon ... of the English missionaries and their songs. A destitute cage cleaner in the employ of a pigeoneer told me pigeon stories, muezzin stories, and even a couple of fairy tales I had never heard." In Lebanese culture, a hakawati is a traditional storyteller. In the novel, Osama's grandfather was one of these. In real life, Alameddine never heard one when he was growing up. "Had I known of one I certainly wouldn't have gone to listen," the author remarks. "I grew up on Bewitched and Monty Python ... on Dr. No, The Sound of Music, and Bruce Lee. ... My friends and I pooh-poohed anything that Arabic culture offered, especially the few things that our parents enjoyed." In other words, he doesn't nurse any pompous pretentions about being an ambassador of one culture writing for another. "I'm part of various subdivisions of humans, but I have never felt that I've belonged to any. I write and desperately hope that someday a reader will read what I've written, but I never presume that my reader is an American, an Arab, a lesbian, a soccer player, a Quaker, a left-handed Inuit basket weaver, an Argentine gigolo, or whatever. Why restrict oneself to silly boundaries?"
In real life, Alameddine's father really did die — in 2003, at which point, writing-wise, "I was floundering. I had different novels in my head and none of them seemed to make sense." But the book isn't autobiographical. "I don't believe in auto-plagiarism: a Nabokovian term," the author says. He and Osama both attended UCLA, but share little else in common besides a fondness for stories. "Stories flit about us all the time," Alameddine muses. "We just forget to listen. Our butterfly nets gather dust." 7 p.m. CodysBooks.com
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