A big exquisite novel about loyalty, identity, and a clash of cultures, French-Lebanese literary giant Amin Maalouf’s The Disoriented explores one man’s return from exile in France to a post-war Orient. Based on his own experiences fleeting a war-torn Lebanon, read an extract from the books opening pages.
My name encompasses all of nascent humanity, yet I belong to a humanity that is dying, Adam will write in his notebook two days before the tragedy.
I have never known why my parents chose to give me this name. In my home country, the name is rare, and no one in my family had ever borne the name before me. I remember asking my father one day, and he merely answered “He is our common ancestor!” as though this was something I might not know. I was ten years old, and I made do with this explanation. Perhaps I should have asked him, while he was still alive, whether, behind the choice, there was some goal, some dream.
I believe there was. In his mind, I was destined to belong to the cohort of founders. Today, at the age of forty-seven, I am forced to admit that my mission will not be accomplished. I will not be the first of a line, I will be the last, the very last of my family, the repository of their collected sorrows, their disappoint- ments, and their shame. To me falls the hateful task of recognizing the faces of those I have loved, to nod my head and watch as the sheet is drawn over them.
I am the attendant to the dead, and when my turn comes, I will fall like a tree trunk, unbowed, calling out to all who care to hear: “I am right and History is wrong!”
This arrogant, absurd cry constantly echoes in my head. Indeed, it could serve as a maxim for the futile pilgrimage I have been undertaking for the past ten days.
In returning to my submerged country, I thought to save some relics of my own past and that of my people. On that score, I no longer hold out much hope. In trying to delay foundering, one runs the risk of hastening the inevitable … That said, I do not regret having undertaken this journey. It is true that every evening I rediscover the reason why I left my native land; but every morning I also rediscover the reason why I never truly abandoned it. My great joy has been to find amid the floodwaters a few small islands of Levantine delicacy, or tranquil tenderness. And this, at least for the moment, has given me a new thirst for life, new reasons to struggle, perhaps even a quiver of hope.
And in the long term?
In the long term, all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are lost children.
The First Day
On Thursday, as he fell asleep, Adam was not thinking that the very next day he would fly back to the country of his birth, after long years of voluntary exile, to see a man he had resolved never to speak to again.
But Mourad’s wife had managed to find words that were unanswerable:
“Your friend is dying. He is asking to see you.”
The telephone had rung at 5:00 a.m. Adam had blindly fumbled for the receiver, pressed one of the backlit but- tons, and answered, “No, honestly, I wasn’t asleep,” or some comparable lie.
The woman on the other end of the line had said, “I’ll put him on.”
He had had to hold his breath to listen to the dying man. And, even then, he had intuited rather than heard the words. The distant voice was like a rustle of fabric. Two or three times, Adam had had to say “Sure” and “I understand,” though he did not understand and was not sure of anything. When the other man had fallen silent, he had ventured a cautious “Goodbye”; he had kept his ear pressed to the receiver for a few seconds in case the man’s wife came back on the line; only then had he hung up.
He had turned to his partner, Dolores, who had turned on the light and sat up in bed, leaning against the wall. She gave the impression that she was weighing the pros and cons, but her mind was already made up.
“Your friend is going to die, he called you, you can’t wait around, you have to go.”
“My friend? What friend? We haven’t spoken to each other in twenty years!”
In fact, for many years, whenever Mourad’s name came up and Adam was asked whether he knew him, he invariably responded: “He’s a former friend.” Often, the people he was speaking to assumed he meant “an old friend.” But Adam did not choose words lightly. He and Mourad had been friends, then they had ceased to be friends. From his point of view, “former friend” was, therefore, the only fitting formulation.
Usually, when he used the expression in front of her, Dolores would simply smile sympathetically. But that morning, she had not smiled.
“If I fell out with my sister tomorrow, would she suddenly be my ‘former’ sister? Or my brother my ‘former’ brother?”
“Family is different, you don’t get to choose …”
“You don’t get to choose in this case either. A childhood friend is an adoptive brother. You may regret adopting him, but you cannot un-adopt him.”
Adam could have launched into a long explanation about how blood ties were different by their very nature. But in doing so, he would have wandered into muddy terrain. After all, he and his partner shared no blood ties. Did this mean that, close as they had become, they might one day be strangers to each other? That, if one of them should call for the other on their deathbed, they might meet with a refusal? The very idea of evoking such a possibility would have been demeaning.
He preferred to stay silent.
In any case, it was futile to argue. Sooner or later, he would have to give in. Though he might have a thousand reasons to bear a grudge against Mourad, to revoke his friendship, even—despite his companion’s words—to “un-adopt” him, those thousand reasons meant nothing in the face of death. If he refused to visit his former friend on his sickbed, he would regret it to his dying day.
And so, he had called the travel agent and booked a seat on the first available flight—leaving that same day at 5:30 p.m. and arriving at 11:00 p.m. local time. He could scarcely have arrived more quickly.
The Disoriented by Amin Maalouf, trans. by Frank Wynne is available now from World Editions
(9781912987061, p/b, £12.99)
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