'Angel Of History' Is A Heartfelt Cry

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The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine (Raquel Zaldivar/NPR)

Rabih Alameddine's novel The Angel of History begins with a conversation between Satan and Death. The two are sitting in the home of Jacob, a poet in the midst of a mental breakdown; long after the death of his partner from AIDS, he's begun hearing voices (again), and is currently trying to check himself into a mental hospital.

Satan wants Jacob to remember — not just the loss of his partner to a plague that decimated a generation of gay men, not just the loss of his closest friends, but every dark moment in his past. Death wants Jacob to forget: "Forgetting is good for the soul. Not just good, but necessary. How do you expect them to go on living if they disremember not?"

The Angel of History takes place in a single day, but it reads like an epic, with a cast that includes not just Satan and Death, but 14 saints on whom Jacob has relied for comfort for most of his life. "When I cried, when the high tide of the gulf of sorrow hit my shores, all fourteen dropped whatever they were doing and tried to comfort me ..." It's a sprawling fever dream of a novel, by turns beautiful and horrifying, and impossible to forget.

Much of The Angel of History is told in flashbacks, through Jacob's journal entries, mostly addressed to his late partner. He recounts his childhood in the Middle East — born to a Lebanese father and Yemeni mother, he spent his early childhood in Cairo, where his mother was employed at a brothel. Later, he'd move to Beirut, where at his father's insistence, he was baptized as a Christian.

Later still, Jacob would make his way to America, where he'd meet his partner Doc. Their relationship wasn't altogether happy — Doc insisted on, to Jacob's chagrin, an open relationship — but Doc's loss leaves Jacob in a headspin. He can deal with it, briefly: "...I was living, I thought I was content, I was told I was happy. I did a marvelous impression of a man not crushed by dread."

But he's ultimately unable to fool himself, and unable to resist remembering his past, which tortures him profoundly. "You've been gone for decades, you hid deep in my lakes, why now, why infect my dreams now?" he pleads to his lost lover. "I'd been so lonely since you died, you left me roofless in a downpour."

Alameddine is a writer with a boundless imagination, and his latest book feels almost completely unrestrained. In the hands of a less gifted author, that could be a problem. But Alameddine's writing is so beautiful, so exuberant, that the reader is willing to go along with the ride, no matter how wild it is. And it does get wild — some passages approach stream-of-consciousness, but there's nothing in the novel that's remotely self-indulgent.

When Alameddine aims for the heart, he doesn't miss, and he hits hard. In one passage, Jacob addresses Doc, admitting that he couldn't cry for a while after he died: "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."

The Angel of History isn't just a brilliant novel, it's a heartfelt cry in the dark, a reminder that we can never forget our past, the friends and family we've loved and lost. It's a raw love letter from those who survived a plague to those who didn't. "Misery is what you get for not dying," Alameddine reminds us, "misery but some good stuff too."

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