The New York Times described The Storyteller as a “wonder of a book” and it is not difficult to understand why. It is not an easy read at over five hundred pages of tightly-packed text and it took me a while to get through it. It is also a book that refuses to be rushed.
The central narrative concerns a Lebanese family, the al-Kharats and their son Osama, who has returned to Beirut from Los Angeles, as his father lies dying. They are a wealthy family, their fortune built upon a series of successful car dealerships (a symbol of Western capitalist affluence), but the key figure here is not Osama’s father, but his grandfather, now long dead, but who had been a Hakawati, a professional storyteller of great repute who performed in the cares of Beirut, reciting the great epic stories and, at home, telling his family the (often fanciful) stories of his own life.
In the notes to the novel , Rabih Alameddine declares that all Lebanese are storytellers and that is what this fine novel is really about – the centrality of story and storytelling to the ay we understand and live our lives. As he rightly says, it is not the event that is important in itself, but the way we remember the event, the story we tell about it, that affects our behaviour. And so this is a book, understandably, about stories and within the main contemporary narrative of the death of Osama’s father, are spun countless other narratives, all kinds of stories that each relate to each other. There are autobiographical stories of Osama himself and his family. There are the elaborate tales that his grandfather, the Hakawati, told about himself. There are religious stories, folktales, myths of the gods, hero legends and so on. Almost every kind of story imaginable is woven together and Alameddine draws upon an impressive range of Arabic and European sources here.
Because this is also a book about Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, the al-Kharat family represents a Lebanense society in all its diversity – religious, ethnic, philosophical, economic and political. Beirut is painted as a cosmoploitan, sophisticated and cultural city, both burdened and liberated by its traditions, much like any other city. For those of us who were teenagers in the 1970s, when civil war raged in Lebanon and Beirut became the world’s number one troublespot, a by-word for chaos and disorder, this nis refreshing – Beirut as a pillar of teolerance and civilisation.
It is a book of incredible ambition and whilst it can be hard-going in places, it is worth the effort. At the end of the day it reminds us that we are all hakawatis.