Monday, July 6, 2009

Independent on Sunday 5 July 2009

The Storyteller Or The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (Picador, £7.99) ****
Alameddine, his name apparently a derivative of ‘Aladdin’, rejoices in the ability to spin a story that lasts for a thousand and one nights, while simultaneously describing the effects of Israeli attacks on his homeland, Lebanon, over the last thirty years. With enviable ease, he weaves in the magic of the Arabian nights, the loss of his childhood home so many years ago, and his visit to his slowly dying father, to create something that feels both postmodern and traditional at the same time.
Ultimately, though, Alameddine’s novel is about the nature of legacy, about the grandfather who delights him when he is small with tales of his own growing-up. The illegitimate son of a married English doctor and his Lebanese maid, Ismail describes how he was abandoned to his own devices, shunned by the doctor’s wife and bullied by her daughters. Where he found salvation was in the talents of the local hakawati, or storyteller, admiring his ability to dazzle listeners with his tales.
These tales, dominated by the slave-girl Fatima and her attempts to help her mistress conceive a son after many years of producing daughters, are passed on to the narrator of the novel, who has returned to Beirut after years abroad to tend to his dying father. The apartment building where he grew up is a wreck, but his family hasn’t changed: like big families the world over, there are perpetual disagreements, makings-up, hugs and tears.
This book has a feisty female heroine in Fatima, which is important in a novel where the tales are being passed from man to man. The greatest, and original, storyteller, though, was, of course, Scheherazade: it was a woman who was, not the object of the stories, but the teller of them; it was a woman who was the first hakawati. War and killing and oppression make us forget that at our peril.

The Hamburger by Josh Ozersky (Caravan Books, £9.99) ***
Studying the story of the humble hamburger is, according to food writer Ozersky, is “one way of studying the country that invented it, and then reinvented it again and again.” As with all icons, its origins are disputed: was the first hamburger created by the Menches brothers in Hamburg, New York, the first official recording of a ground beef sandwich, sold at a country fair in 1885? Or was it when it was first placed in a bun of equal size, as it was at Weber’s restaurant in Tulsa in 1933? Whatever its beginnings, the burger has become as synonymous with America as cowboys and cadillacs, a part of its capitalist culture represented by those famed golden arches, now exported all over the world. But it was a blue-collar meal that was hot and nutritious, made of beef, and easy to eat while working (or driving), and the irony of this poor-man’s feast becoming the means by which other men have made millions is not lost on Ozersky. Its place as part of the history of Fordism is interesting, too: an unsettling past meant Americans of the 1950s yearned for standardisation, and little was more standardised than millions of round burgers in the same comforting round baps.

City of Thieves by David Benioff (Sceptre, £7.99) ***
Benioff is a Hollywood screenwriter and the narrative efficiency such a job requires is much in evidence here in this tale of the siege of Leningrad, which zips along at a fair pace, remarkable when the setting is a city gripped tight by its Nazi oppressors. The citizens may not be able to leave, and some of them may have been reduced to cannibalism by the deprivations inflicted on them, but they still manage to scurry about, getting up to all sorts. Benioff is smart enough to remind us from time to time that his leading characters, the teenage nerd Lev, and the charismatic, slightly mad deserter Kolya, are slowly starving to death: every so often they have to stop to catch their breath, and hugging Kolya’s girlfriend Sonya feels to Lev like clutching a bag of bones. Both Lev and Kolya must find a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of the daughter of the city’s police chief, of they will be executed. The absurdity of this task, in the middle of the worst siege of a city in modern history, actually sits well, offsetting the misery and hopelessness of the actual situation, and Kolya is a mesmerising enough character, witty and irreverent, to carry the tale.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin, £9.99) **
I’m surprised that Gladwell considers race as a matter for success (the effects of slave history), nationality (whether you’re American Irish or American-Italian, for instance, will affect your chances of success) and class (being poor, funnily enough, lessens your chances too), but not gender: apparently, being female rather male doesn’t make a difference. I would like to think this is true, but, alas, it’s not, so it’s a fairly large omission as far as I’m concerned. Gladwell is focused on exposing the American dream, that by one’s own exertions anyone can make it to the top, regardless of circumstance and so on, and showing that those who do make it are “the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies”, all of which mean that he will trawl through lots of statistics (what month the best hockey players were born; the amount of hours The Beatles had to play in Hamburg), to prove his thesis. Marxist theory and feminist theory got there ahead of him a long, long time ago, so there’s not much new here, although it is possibly presented in a more palatable form for many.

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Tim Parks (Penguin, £12.99) ****
This is an excellent translation by Parks, accessible and gripping without diluting Macchiavelli’s message one iota. His sense of Macciavelli’s masterpiece as an essentially psychological work, one that looks at the effects of power of the mind, infuses his translation which never forgets its origins as a letter, as a means of conveying a message to a new ruler. Parks shows, too, in his introduction how amenable this text has been to both right and left-wingers over the centuries: the right saw it as a warning about the power of the people, the left as a vindication, while others like Bertrand Russell viewed it as a “handbook for gangsters.” Certainly, there are many passages like the one warning leaders of indecisiveness, that one suspects should be circled in red and handed to the present Prime Minister. Machiavelli was showing how to achieve power and hold on to it: his ethical treatise was centred solely on this, which is what long frightened so many who were trying to impart notions of good and bad, not powerful and powerless. I searched in vain for a section on MPs’ expenses, though: financial probity wasn’t important to leaders in the sixteenth century, either, it seems.