The central tension of Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Angel of History is whether to forget or remember. In the novel, this debate literally occurs between Satan and Death. Satan, portrayed as the Angel of Memory, and quite counter to most Western incantations due to his charming, caring, and gregarious demeanor, argues for the power of memory. Death argues for the importance of forgetting; when we forget, Death argues, we become capable of managing the complexities of the world. Forgetting allows one to live. Satan disagrees, taking up the position that remembering allows one to live.
The debate between Satan and Death unfolds in relation to Ya’Qub (Jacob, in the novel, since U.S. citizens are unable to pronounce his name correctly). A gay, Arab poet living in the United States, we find Ya’Qub struggling with the welling up of memories about his dead lover and dead friends, who all died from AIDS over the course of six months during the height of the epidemic crisis in the 1980s. Ya’Qub, we are lead to believe, has largely sought to forget these deaths, the terrible circumstances surrounding his having to care for his lover and friends as they died, and the various acts of spreading their ashes around the world.
Ya’Qub appears to have chosen pattern, monotony, and predictability in the 20+ years of his life following the deaths of his friends. He works at a law firm, goes home from work, occasionally watches movies or engages with his roommate Odette. Sometimes he seeks human connection, engaging in sexual relations with other men. These encounters are usually sadomasochistic and occur in bathhouses, alleys, or doorways.
We get the sense that the act of forgetting (or suppressing the memories) of his lover and friends’ deaths has led to a wilting of Ya’Qub’s artistic abilities. Whereas he was once a poet, Ya’Qub has turned to writing fiction. Satan wishes to help Ya’Qub remember – so he can return to his art and poetics. Death wants him to continue forgetting, so he might go on living. This is the underlying plot of the book.
The book certainly seeks to center the AIDS crisis. Alameddine seems to be asking: what do we remember about the start of the AIDS epidemic? What are we seeking to suppress or forget? This appears particularly poignant for our culture writ large, but also for members of the gay community in particular. In one of the opening scenes of the book, Ya’Qub encounters two young gay men at a restaurant mourning over the loss of Joan Didion’s partner. This incident leads Ya’Qub to begin remembering his lover and his friends. He goes on a rather long diatribe, scolding the young gay men for not knowing their history, the losses that the gay community endured as AIDS ravaged the community. It is beautiful and heart wrenching monologue, and it marks the beginning of Ya’Qub’s pseudo-psychotic breakdown. He ultimately ends up checking himself into a psychiatric hospital to see a psychiatrist.
The beauty of the book certainly lies in meshing together a story of mourning and loss with analysis of contemporary issues. The novel takes place in the present. Here are a few additional themes of particular importance.
As noted above, Ya’Qub has abandoned writing poetry and turned to short fiction. These microfictions appear throughout the novel and offer Alameddine opportunity to reflect and critique contemporary world affairs, while also providing commentary on Ya’Qub’s character. In one story, “The Drone,” Ya’Qub writes about drone warfare in Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries. The story is told from the perspective of the drone (named Ezekiel) – which is anthropomorphized. This drone thinks about the many parts of the world it has seen; remembers the people it has shot, bombed, and killed, sometimes being self-congratulatory, sometimes mourning collateral human damage. After being shot down, the drone seems to develop a relationship with a young boy in a village it was sent to attack. The drone and the boy play games – hide and seek, for example – until American paratroopers come in to rescue the drone. Ultimately the drone is repaired and returns to service. Flying once again above the village, the drone sees the boy with whom it developed a relationship being flogged by some other men. The drone kills the other men, saving the young boy – and in a particularly sarcastic and absurd moment we see the drone celebrating as the village becomes a capitalist and democratic haven – full of Starbucks, Wendy’s, and other modern American exports. “Capitalism rocks!” we are told.
This microfiction is Alameddine’s way of bridging the current drone wars going on around the world, courtesy of the United States, with Ya’Qubs difficulty reconciling the violence occurring in parts of the world where he grew up. Moreover, this microfiction of “The Drone” seeks to ask a larger question – can we remember what we do not know? In the United States the drone wars of the past eight years go largely unreported, unexamined, and undiscussed. Can we remember these atrocities? The people we are killing? How do those who survive remember their loved ones? Do they remember, or like Ya’Qub, do they seek to forget and suppress the death, destruction, and annihilation?
A second microfiction, “A Cage in the Penthouse,” tells the absurd story of U.S. citizens keeping Arabs and Muslims in cages within their homes for entertainment purposes. This story is commentary on the current political climate and attitude toward Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Rampant xenophobia and Islamaphobia permeate our present society. Alameddine is connecting the history of this period with the history of African Americans in the United States – who also used to be used as entertainment in the homes of white people, and who clearly arrived to the United States in shackles and cages. In these parallels, Alameddine makes explicit connections to our cultural and national forgetting, suggesting that while not the same, the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in this country presently mirrors the treatment of African Americans in the past (and present). How can we forget or fail to see the parallels?
These microfictions throughout the novel are also clearly connected to Ya’Qub. As a dark skinned Arab, Ya’Qub has clearly felt the stings of racism and xenophobia. Having grown up in the Middle East, and then immigrating to the United States, Ya’Qub also struggles to reconcile his feelings toward his new country and the so-called war on terror, which is destroying parts of the world where he grew up. These are not subtle or apologetic political dialogues. Alameddine clearly criticizes U.S. domestic and foreign policy throughout the novel.
How can we Love Others and Ourselves?
There seems to be a larger question in this novel related to love of self and others. Ya’Qub struggles to be loved throughout his life. His mother is a prostitute and he grows up in a whorehouse, largely ignored by his mother. At age 10 he goes to live with his father in Beirut, a man who is wealthy but also ignores him and forces him to convert to Christianity and learn French. And even as we learn about Ya’Qub and his lovers’ relationship, we begin to understand its relative lovelessness. An open relationship, Ya’Qub struggles as his lover brings home other men with whom to sleep – and ultimately is rejected by his lover who, on his deathbed, tells Ya’Qub not to touch him.
Like many gay men, Ya’Qub struggles with accepting his sexuality at times throughout the novel. He is self-deprecating about his sexual and ethnic identity. He repeatedly refers to himself as a ‘faggot,’ ‘sand nigger,’ and ‘dirty Arab.’ Part of this is the internalization of societal attitudes – internalized racism, homophobia.
It appears to me that Ya’Qub never truly learned to love himself. He is a bastard – born of a mother and father from two different countries. He is gay. He is dark-skinned Arab. And he struggles throughout the book with reconciling these social identities. Part of the suppression of his memory appears to be related to his own hatred of self, fueled by a lifetime of internalizing societal prejudice. He also suffers from tremendous survivor’s guilt, having never become infected with HIV himself in the novel.
This leads to an inability to be loved by others. Ya’Qub’s seeking to forget the death of his lover and friends has led him to a life of solitude. He is profoundly lonely. He feels miserable. This loneliness and misery has stolen his creative abilities and his passion for living – and although he is not suicidal – the battle between Satan and Death over whether to help Ya’Qub remember or allow him to continue forgetting centers on Satan’s desires for him to keep living. He believes only by remembering will Ya’Qub find the possibility of moving on, loving himself, and opening his heart to being loved by others (and without giving much away – there is a particularly beautiful moment near the end of the text that dramatically supports this reading of the novel).
The Angel of History is an absolutely masterful novel. There are many themes (particularly religion) and references to contemporary and literary history/culture (technology, Pope Francis, and many music, book, and political asides) that I did not discuss in this post.
The structure of the novel is complex – alternating between Ya’Qub’s journals, his microfictions, and interviews between Satan, Death, and other religious figures. What is perhaps most striking is Alameddine’s command of language. The structure of sentences, his use of dialogue, stream of consciousness thinking, and beautiful prose is perhaps the best I’ve read in years. From a language and narrative perspective, the book is simply breathtakingly beautiful.
This is also the first book in years that has made me cry. Those who know me recognize that I am not one to show emotions often. However, the closing pages of this novel are heart wrenching and beautiful. Without spoiling others’ reading of the text, let me implore those of you who love language, narrative, and stories to read this text through to the end. I hope you will be moved emotionally and empathically. Alameddine has created a moving literary experience that challenges all of us to confront difficult questions about memory, forgetting, politics, society, identity, AIDS, and love.