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The Hakawati Paperback – June 2, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Guest Review: Amy Tan

I’ve been a huge fan of Rabih Alameddine's work for many years, beginning with his first novel, Koolaids: The Art of War. Rabih is not only a writer whose work I admire, he is also the writer with whom I have spent the most time talking about books, writers, and literary ideas. He reads the most international fiction of anyone else I know. And for now, his French is better than mine—though I’m working on that. . . .

Rabih is what I would call a writer of conscience, of self-consciousness, of subconsciouness, of the great big global unconscious. Within his stories are provocative ideas, housed in fractured narratives, splendid images, daring language—and simply great storytelling. What some might call disjointed narratives, I think of as the way our perceptions of time and space actually unfurl themselves: not linearly, but in a revelatory sense. In The Hakawati, you are often set on a fabulist path, astride a horse, in the echoing halls of an emir’s palace, a mythic time and place—but suddenly, it feels as if the emir is ringing your own doorbell as you read, asking if he can borrow a bale of hay for his horse.

The Hakawati is already becoming known by both readers and critics as an important, timely story. In part it’s because of the way the book integrates ancient tales from the Middle East into the lives of one unforgettable family. But it is also because of the upheavals--the violence--taking place in Lebanon today. Fiction has always been part of the wake of real political events. People read fiction, it seems to me, to understand the truth. And they will read The Hakawati to have a connection to those events--to the turmoil faced by real people not only in Lebanon but all across the Middle East. In fiction you can immerse your imagination in someone else's imagination. You are with characters the writer has imagined, and you are living beside them; they operate as your guides to life. By the end of the book, you love those characters. You have a profound interest in where they live. That's what Rabih has done in The Hakawati with Lebanon. It is no longer merely a fictional place, no longer a place you simply read about, or see on television, in the news.

Yet The Hakawati is not only timely in that sense: it is a timeless novel. In the world of ideas, fabulist tales are the foundations of many religions, including those in the Middle East, be they Jewish, Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Druze. These tales generally start off with the same kings and genies, the same men and women who are cast out to solve a riddle, slay a monster, or bring back proof of paternity or the death of an enemy, or what have you. Then there are "revisionist" versions of the fabulist tales, because no writer can keep his or her hands off a story to make it his or her own. And so throughout the history of religion, these stories have gathered permutations. And these permutations have gathered followers and enemies. But soon a set of fabulist tales becomes the Tales of the True Believers, and religion itself becomes the one reality. Therein lies the source of conflict, and of so much bloody war. In The Hakawati, some of the bloody parts resonate in tragic ways, while in others they are amplified, magnified, often in bizarre and even in bizarrely humorous fashion, as if to poke fun at the seriousness in which people treat these details.

Interwoven with the historical/fabulist stories in The Hakawati are other stories--those about one singular family's past. Invariably, as in any family's stories, there are secrets, scandals, something changed to fit what was best for the family reputation. Intersecting with the lore of the family's background is a narrative of what one man, Osama al-Kharrat, is experiencing now: the imminent death of his father; the reunion of relatives; his own shifting sense of home; the revisiting of relationships misappropriated and unwound--all tied back together in kaleidoscopic ways.

And it's not only the stories themselves that Alameddine is after: it's the nature of stories generally: this is what is at the heart of The Hakawati. Our own lives are narratives; they don’t exist on a single flat plane. They include the influences of myths, fables, reconstructed moral tales. They include the untold stories of our ancestors. They include supposition and hypotheses, bias, and grudge, sentimentality and affection. The Hakawati takes these myriad gorgeous threads and reweaves them brilliantly.

And did I mention language? Usually, I know I'll like a book from the very first page. I can tell by the language. It shines and hums. It has imagery that makes me see more deeply. The characters say surprising things that are also perfectly true. And within the sentences I find knowledge, deep-seated and intelligent, brimming with an understanding of history, of character, or literature, of humor. From the very first lines of The Hakawati: "Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story," I knew this would be a book like that for me.

I could go on and on ... but let me simply add one more thing. I am a good predictor of who will win prizes. And I am predicting major prizes for The Hakawati. And for Rabih, I am predicting the biggest of prizes one day. The Nobel in both Literature and Peace. I’m only half-kidding. For that reason alone, you should click and buy not just one copy, but several. If this book wins those prizes, then your edition today will be worth so much more later, especially when your friends see you had the perspicacity to recognize a good story when you heard one. As I wrote in my endorsement for the novel, "Rabih Alameddine is the hakawati, and in the very near future, everyone will know how to pronounce his name."

--Amy Tan


--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Stories descend from stories as families descend from families in the magical third novel from Alameddine (I, the Divine), telling tales of contemporary Lebanon that converge, ingeniously, with timeless Arabic fables. With his father dying in a Beirut hospital, Osama al-Khattar, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns in 2003 for the feast of Eid al-Hada. As he keeps watch with his sister, Lina, and extended family, Osama narrates the family history, going back to his great-grandparents, and including his grandfather, a hakawati, or storyteller. Their stories are crosscut with two sinuous Arabian tales: one of Fatima, a slave girl who torments hell and conquers the heart of Afreet Jehanam, a genie; another of Baybars, the slave prince, and his clever servant, Othman. Osama's family story generates a Proustian density of gossip: their Beirut is luxuriant as only a hopelessly insular world on the cusp of dissolution can be; its interruption by the savagery that takes hold of the city in the '70s is shocking. The old, tolerant Beirut is symbolized by Uncle Jihad: a gay, intensely lively storyteller, sexually at odds with a society he loves. Uncle Jihad's death marks a symbolic break in the chain of stories and traditions—unless Osama assumes his place in the al-Khattar line. Almost as alluring is the subplot involving a contemporary Fatima as a femme fatale whose charms stupefy and lure jewelry from a whole set of Saudi moneymen, and her sexy sister Mariella, whose beauty queen career (helped by the votes of judges cowed by her militia leader lovers) is tragically, and luridly, aborted.Alameddine's own storytelling ingenuity seems infinite: out of it he has fashioned a novel on a royal scale, as reflective of past empires as present. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (June 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307386279
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307386274
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #88,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Rabih Alameddine's new novel, "The Hakawati," is a sprawling, delicious panoply of over-the-top tales of love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skulduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else, all plaited into a set of parallel narratives which augment and illuminate each other. It is a masterful and startling accomplishment, a sort of literary maqam that twists and turns on recurrent themes and characters. The reader initially wonders how to relate all these seemingly unrelated stories, but quickly notices with growing awareness how they are really jazz riffs on single themes, embellishments that sear those themes into our consciousness so that we can't get them out of our heads.

This is not the first time that Alameddine has used such literary structure. His first novel, "Koolaids," interlaced two parallel narratives, the worst years of the AIDS crisis and the civil war in Lebanon. There, as in "The Hakawati," the narratives resonated one with the other. And his second novel, "I, the Divine," an ingenious work all in first chapters of his narrator's never-to-be-completed memoir, managed to give us multiple perspectives on events told by a single character, much as The Hakawati gives us multiple views of universal themes that echo through very different tales. But whereas the two earlier works had some rough edges and unpolished facets, "The Hakawati" is a perfect gem, burnished, intricate, complex, and with every feature serving to magnify its brilliance and dazzle. Here is a writer who has grown into his initial promise, perhaps beyond it.

It is easy to fall in love with the tales themselves; they are both currently relevant and timeless as well as entirely engrossing.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For those who seek to understand the bonds in famililes, this book is a find. There is nothing heroic or unusual about this family, their happenings and trials are the stuff of common lives. The portrait is honest and emotionally deep.
Layered onto the story of this multigeneration family are the wild fables of Lebanon. In one moment you want to hear what happens to the family, the next you are totally absorbed in some wild tale. Tales emerge within tales to our delight.
I haven't enjoyed a book this much in ages.
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Format: Hardcover
`The Hakawati' is a plethora of tales of heroism, magic, death, victory, love, sex, redemption and lies, and just about everything else you can imagine woven into one story about one guy and his family roots.

Since finishing `The Hakawati', I have found myself wishing the story had never ended. I have opened the book and read a passage here and there, just to stay in the story for as long as possible. This book will have a lasting effect on any reader of any genre. Its classic, its modern, its an all around great read! Its a "jump right in" kind of book that will leave you exhausted, yet longing for more!

The main story set in the hospital is joined with two Arabian tales, one of Fatima, a slave girl who conquers the heart of a genie, and the other of Baybars, a slave prince and his servant, Othman. Within the stories are other stories of the rise of Osama's family's rise in society and the disintegration of a civilized society by competing religions and ideologies. There are references to the Koran, the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer and many other well-known classics.

Not only does Rabih Alameddine tell the story of a storyteller, he is the Hakawati. `The Hakawati' is a brilliant masterpiece of family roots, mythology and adventure. This book is a collection of fairy tales for adults. While I was reading some of the journeys in the book seemed a bit exhausting, and I had to put the book down. Upon reflection, though, they weren't exhausting, the experience of reading the Hakawati was a full sensory explosion. There is a story of Osama's great grandfather and his first experience with a Hakawati, the story describes how the audience reacted to the great Hakawati's storytelling techniques. Alameddine took his own descriptions of the audience and wrote this book in a way that his readers would transform into that audience whether they realized it or not.

--excerpted from its original form at Old Musty Books
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Format: Hardcover
The Hakawati is a book I wanted to like more than I could. I only got about halfway through it before losing patience. The meandering, nonlinear style --which is the point, of course-- ultimately left me more confused and disinterested than intrigued.

As I said, I really wanted to like this book. The title and its meaning fascinated me from the start. A hakawati is a storyteller, and author Rabih Alameddine uses this as the focal point for weaving endlessly interlinked stories together. The tale jumps from present day Lebanon to the distant past of the Middle East, from historical events to mythical, Arabian Nights type tales. The postmodern effect of all these stories within stories is enhanced by using contemporary concepts and language within old, traditional (or supposedly so) tales.

In a way, my reaction to The Hakawati is similar to how I feel about Joyce's Ulysses; I enjoy discussing the structure and theory of both books more than I enjoy actually reading either of them. In both cases, I can see the brilliant and original ideas at work. Yet, in both cases I end up tiring of all the devices and wish for a simpler, more accessible tale. One warning sign I had before starting it was the fact that it's been called an "important" book by more than one reviewer.

I enjoy many postmodern novels (as well as films) that use the "tales within tales" gimmick, such as John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, A.S. Byatt's, Possession and Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson. The problem I had with The Hakawati is that the number of stories and characters, and their scope, increases throughout the book. While there are certain parallels and relationships between the many layers of stories, after a while I found it difficult to keep track of which story I was in.
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