Set over the course of one night in the waiting room of a psych clinic, The Angel of History follows Yemeni-born poet Jacob as he revisits the events of his life, from his maternal upbringing in an Egyptian whorehouse to his adolescence under the aegis of his wealthy father and his life as a gay Arab man in San Francisco at the height of AIDS. Hovered over by the presence of alluring, sassy Satan who taunts Jacob to remember his painful past and dour, frigid Death who urges him to forget and give up on life, Jacob is also attended to by 14 saints. Set in Cairo and Beirut; Sana'a, Stockholm, and San Francisco; Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives.
This is a powerful portrayal of an exile. Jacob is always the outsider, a man who has never been at home anywhere: a small boy in a brothel, a Muslim boy sent to a Catholic orphanage, an Arab in Sweden and the USA. He was always too small, too brown, too gay.
Jacob mourns his American doctor lover and a circle of friends swept away by AIDS. Since their death Jacob has been in a form of denial. Now as the homelands of his childhood burn under the bombs and missiles of his adoptive country, Jacob experiences a psychological crisis which brings him to the waiting room of a clinic. From his memories, it is clear that not even his gay "family" had been entirely kind to Jacob. The nearest thing he has ever had to a family in some ways was in the brothel, where he was taken under the wing of the madam, but he lost that as his mother sent him to be with his father. Only his father didn't want to know his son and sent him to the orphanage, where he is converted to Christianity and where fourteen saints enter his life and act as guides to the young man.
You can read the saints as a sign of Jacob's mental state, or you can read them as real. Many are, like Jacob, rejected mongrels, rejected by the Catholic church as saints. More worrying for Jacob is the appearance of Satan, whose voice he hears and whom he sometimes sees. If that sounds stark and bleak, do not worry. Alameddine handles the story dextrously. The narrative is shot through with touches of humour, particularly in Satan's interviews with the saints, and beautiful prose. This is a book which merits thoughtful reading: there are also some erudite references here, including to Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and structurally the narrative jumps between memories, plus Jacob isn't an entirely reliant narrator. But The Angel of History is worth the effort.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in return for a fair review