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.
The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine
Publication Date: October 4, 2016 by Grove Atlantic
This book is as hard to review as it was to read – and I mean that as the highest form of compliment. The Angel of History is not necessarily a book I would have picked up on my own just because I tend to shy away from books that involve religious elements to them. Because I don’t relate to religion, I sometimes find I have a difficult time immersing in fiction that involves religious subject matter.
I’m glad I started this book with an open mind and am forever grateful to have won it through a contest on Instagram – Alameddine is a stunningly gifted writer and The Angel of History does a phenomenal job of sharing the devastating impact the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s had on the LGBT community.
Jacob’s story is a heartbreaking one and the utter sense of loneliness he feels upon losing his boyfriend (and essentially his entire group of friends) to AIDs even years later is something that quickly brought tears to my eyes.
The format of the novel is a bit quirky and took me some time to get used to. Chapters rotate – Jacob’s present day experience in the waiting room of a psych clinic, dialogue between Satan and Death, interviews between Satan and 14 individual saints, and Jacob’s fictional stories. There are also chapters that consist entirely of Jacob speaking internally to his deceased lover and flashbacks to Jacob’s childhood and the time in his life prior to losing all his friends as well as the time he spent caring for his friends as they died one by one. As the reader continues to get a better picture of Jacob’s full life, it is clear to see how anyone could end up in the waiting room of a psych ward – he has experienced such cruelty and devastating loss over his lifetime.
I have to tell you that I wasn’t able to cry after you died. I’m sorry. I wasn’t able to cry for you or any of us. I was terrified of following, desperately clinging to the buoy. How could my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? For years I thought I was a terrible person for being unable to shed a tear, a disgusting man. Only now do I allow myself a justification or two: my heart was too small, I had to care for you, for all of us, I had to write everything down, I could not deal with loss irreparable, I wanted to speak for the dead, I had to make sure that the living remembered.
I also really enjoyed the “Satan Interview” chapters – both for their dark humor as well as how they creatively shared more of Jacob’s life in small bursts throughout the book. It made me realize I really need to read The Master and Margarita – there were particular scenes that seem to purposely relate to Bulgakov’s popular novel (the cat, Behemoth, seems like the most obvious connection) and I found myself wishing I had already read the novel prior to beginning The Angel of History, but realize that most likely it wouldn’t have made a major difference in how much I enjoyed this novel. I am interested in reading more of Alameddine’s work!