Jacob, an immigrant gay poet of Arabic origin, lives in San Francisco. Born Ya’qub in Yemen, his mother was a prostitute in an Egyptian brothel and his father a wealthy entrepreneur from Lebanon. He lived in Cairo and Beirut, where his Lebanese father consigned him to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. He later moved to San Francisco, where he has watched his six friends die during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. All that left to him are scars and memories, and an unbearable sense of loss. Thirty years later, he is still grieving the deaths of his friends, and talks to his dead lover, Doc.
I lie on my side, head sunk in the pillow, waiting for first light, for the lift of the curtain, waiting for you, how your right hand used to entwine with my left in the universal slow dance, how our bodies fit in bed, yet you didn’t show up.
The Angel of History is framed around the single night Jacob spends in the waiting room of a mental health facility somewhere in San Francisco. Mostly, it takes place in his head. Depressed and paralysed by grief, Jacob mixes his memories with his deepest desires and feelings. He feels that he has lost the capacity to be in control or function in the everyday world. He feels that his life in no longer worth living.
It is then that the Angel of History makes his appearance. It is Satan, Iblis in Arabic. He wants to bring Jacob back in life by urging him to remember. He battles with Death who wants Jacob to forget. The angel of remembering an the master of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.
“Death can ruin everything with a single touch. Oblivion is his trade,” says Saint Catherine of Alexandria
It is during that night of waiting that the painful past rose vividly before Jacob. Remembrance would be his salvation. But at what cost?
The Angel of History is a story of one life. A journey through love and sex, religion and war, death and loss and the need to remember. As in Walter Benjamin’s essay with the same title, The Angel of History, is about how one looks back in order to live again.
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Illuminations, 257-58)
Fourteen saints of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin come to help Jacob. Yet their message is unclear and their power is limited. They are caught between hope and catastrophe. Present but transient, hilarious at time.
Rabih Alameddine has written a novel unlike any other. This is not a book about identity politics, although it can be seen as political. It is a book about a single person that fights his own demons and saints. It is not an easy read. It is beautiful and moving. At the same time, it is also dirty and horrified. Highly recommended.
*Featured image: A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus”.