The Angel of History
by Rabih Alameddine
Atlantic Grove Press
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
We are all haunted by our pasts to some degree, carry our sins and our demons on our backs. In Rabih Alameddine’s new book, The Angel of History, the protagonist, Jacob, not only carries that heavy load, he is squired through a turbulent and troubled life by Satan himself: “…Satan had made a bed in my ear and slept in it, and Satan said, This is not possession, if it were, you would do what I tell you and not refuse my counsel….” This is not your mother’s Satan, however. He’s a sartorially splendid, witty yet wicked man of sophistication. Jacob is a pet project of his and he’s determined to guide him through the turbulent waters of his life. He calls on his conspirator, Death, as well as a host of Saints to achieve this end.
Jacob turns up one evening at a San Francisco psychiatric emergency room, out of mental and emotional exhaustion and hoping for admission for a three-days’ rest. He’s ready to end his non-stop conversation with the omnipresent Satan, who’s always whispering in his ear. He is literally exhausted by the AIDS-related deaths of his closest friends and the man he loves during the height of the pandemic in San Francisco: “AIDS was a river with no bed that ran soundlessly and inexorably through my life, flooded everything, drowned all I knew….”
Jacob was born illegitimately to a Yemeni maid in a wealthy Beirut household and raised wandering Yemen, in a Cairo whorehouse, at a Lebanese Catholic boarding school, and finally landing in the City by the Bay as an adult gay man: “…But each time you bid farewell to a place, voracious flesh-eating fish swim up from your depths, vultures circle your skies, and your city’s dead quiver with fury in their graves and bang on their coffins….”
Jacob’s history is told from the perspective of this one desperate evening at the clinic. Satan’s interviews with the Saints that have also guided Jacob’s life give much insight into his character. Jacob’s own journals tell the tales of a painful childhood capped by the horrors of a modern-day plague which takes many of the men he loves. Jacob is a struggling poet and writer and his wonderful and unique short stories provide another perspective of his unique view of the world and lend more credence to the creative powers of Alameddine, who was a National Book Award finalist for An Unnecessary Woman.
Alameddine’s greatest strength is his euphonious and lyrical prose. It reads like poetry, every word selected with a jeweler’s precision. The words have a rhythm and flow beautifully from the author’s creative and agile mind. The author’s signature erudition is displayed beautifully here with classical, religious, and artistic references that serve to inform and illustrate, and are never pedantic. All of these skilled devices serve to bring us a compelling tale of a complex man’s inner life and the loss and grief brought about by the AIDS crisis at its height.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.