I received an advanced review copy of this title from New Vessel Press. The novel was published in the original French in 2007 and this English version has been translated by Edward Gauvin.
The story of Samuel Ayyad, a Lebanese man who, in 1908 at the age of eighteen leaves his home in Beirut to become a civilian officer for the British army in the Sudan, is told many decades later by his grandson. The narrator states at the beginning of his tale that the stories of his adventurous grandfather’s life have been passed down through his family by word of mouth making some of this story read more like legend than biography. He begins his tale with a rhetorical question:
How to bring together and breath life into all those outlandish, nonsensical particulars uncertain traditions have passed down, or vague stories my mother told me that he himself, her own father, told her, but which she never sought to have him clarify or fasten to anything tangible, such that they reached me in pieces, susceptible to wild reverie and endless novelistic embroidering, like a story which only chapter headings remain, but which I have waited to tell for decades.
Majdalani’s rendition of the unreliable narrator that he uses for his story seems fitting for a plot that involves the dismantled contents of a palace being carried through the desert via camel and donkey caravan. Samuel’s story begins believably enough when he takes a job in the Sudan as a translator for a British officer named Colonel Moore. The Colonel is tasked with trying to unify the Sudan which had been retaken from Khalifa Abdallahi by the Anglo-Egyptian armies. After decades of despotic oppression the country is still in a state of chaos as the capital city of Khartoum is slowly being rebuilt. When Samuel arrives in Khartoum his duties are to act as liaison and interpreter between the British army and the local populace. Samuel’s stay in Khartoum is short-lived as he becomes involved in Colonel Moore’s expedition to the desert to speak with local tribes in an attempt to prevent an uprising lead by one of the tribal chieftains. From this point forward, Samuel’s life becomes the archetype of a flawless hero, one in which he feels the urge to carry other men’s burdens, both figuratively and literally, through the desert.
When Samuel ventures out into different parts of the Sudan as a member of Colonel Moore’s entourage, he quickly becomes indispensable not only as the commander’s translator but also as his advisor for negotiating the customs of the local tribes. When the Colonel decides to return to Khartoum, Samuel is left in charge of a small contingent of forces as well as a small fortune of gold in order to negotiate with the local tribes. Thus, Samuel takes up the Colonel’s burden of quelling a rebellion and uniting the tribes of western Sudan under the British flag. Samuel spends his nights in the desert, eating rich dinners of roasted gazelle and exchanging stories with local sultans. Majdalani’s strength as a writer is found in his beautiful and detailed descriptions of the topography of this region. At times the narrative is so detailed that I felt a map would have been appropriate to include within the text. But, then again, because our narrator is not entirely reliable, a map might break the spell of this story that is not meant to be entirely plausible.
The next burden that Samuel takes upon himself is a palace that has been dismantled into a thousand pieces and is being carried through the desert by an antique dealer named Shafik Abyad. Abyad, in his hunt for ancient treasure, buys a this small Arabian palace in Tripoli. Instead of selling off the pieces of the palace bit by bit, he loads the stones, frescoes, gilded mirrors, staircase and even the pool adorned in Moorish style onto the backs of camels and heads south with his caravan. When Samuel encounters Abyad in the desert, the antiquities dealer has been carrying these pieces in his caravan for years and has failed to find a buyer for his palace. Samuel, whether out of pity or a sense of adventure, or plans for his future—once again the narrator isn’t entirely sure of this information—buys the entire palace which he, himself now bears across parts of Africa and The Middle East.
Throughout his travels in the desert Samuel continues to help others by taking on their burdens and he becomes famous for his adventures. As he attempts to make his way back to Lebanon, World War I has broken out and naval blockades prevent him from sailing to his homeland with his palace. The author includes a hefty amount of history about this tumultuous region in the early 20th century that at times felt overwhelming . The juxtaposition of volatile historical events with the heroic character of Samuel makes for an odd mix of realism and romanticism in the novel. As war and uncertainty surround him, Samuel remains a constant pillar of strength, bravery and tenacity. He becomes a larger than life hero who has no flaws or faults of any kind; Samuel is always polite, always chooses to do the right thing, and always saves others from their own, crushing burdens by taking them on as his own. It becomes evident that the narrator’s uncertainty about these events allows him to idealize his grandfather who drags his palace all the way back to Beirut where he eventually lives in it with his “princess”—the narrator’s grandmother. Although this was a lovely story with a happy ending, I have to admit that I much prefer my heroes to be of the Ancient Greek sort— in other words, rather flawed.
About the Author:
Charif Majdalani, born in Lebanon in 1960, is often likened to a Lebanese Proust. Majdalani lived in France from 1980 to 1993 and now teaches French literature at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. The original French version of his novel Moving the Palace won the 2008 François Mauriac Prize from the Académie Française as well as the Prix Tropiques.