The Disoriented by Amin Maalouf

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The Disoriented by Amin Maalouf

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An extended conversation on war, religion and relationships. An affectionate reflection on the nature of youth and what comes after.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 522 Date: May 2020
Publisher: World Editions
ISBN: 978-1912987061

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Adam has lived in Paris for years, speaks French more easily than his native Arabic. In fact he hasn't been back to his homeland for 25 years. An old friend is dying…or as Adam prefers to think of him a former-friend, perhaps not as harsh as an ex-friend, or maybe. The falling out was a long time ago, and Adam's partner has no idea what it was about, even so she urges him to go knowing that he'll regret not doing so. Not knowing whether he's going because he needs or wants to, or simply because he was asked, he's on the next plane.

Back in the Levant (Maalouf is circumspect about which particular country is referenced – maybe his home-country of Lebanon, but maybe all of them) Adam finds himself drawn back to old friends, old secrets, old lies, old loves and old arguments…but twenty-five years on, everyone and everything has changed. Or maybe not so much.

The Huffington Post is quoted as describing the novel as a powerful, nostalgic current of lost paradise and stolen youth and it's hard to disagree with all of that. Powerful is a word that does not sit well with me in this case. Nostalgic, definitely. What was lost, or stolen, is open to question and you'll have to read to judge for yourselves. I can't accept powerful, because I discovered at the end, at the end came abruptly and unexpectedly, I found that I had not been emotionally engaged by these people. The engagement was totally intellectual. Distanced.

That's not to say I don't recommend you read this book. On the contrary, I think everyone should, but in many ways it felt a little like a 'history' version of Sophie's World. A primer for those wanting to understand the middle east, through the eyes of those – Muslim, Jewish, Christian – who lived through or escaped from its recent troubled past. There is an interesting line in the standard disclaimer about this being a work of fiction the views expressed are the views of the characters and should not be confused with those of the author. Sad that the world has to come to a place where that needs be said.

The views of the characters in the book are coloured by their heritage – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – and by their intellectual stance towards religion, their own and others and in general… and their interactions form the basis for what is less 'a novel' and more an extended all-sides debate on the how and why of where the middle east is today and whether there is hope.

It is also a discourse on the nature of religion and faith and the differences between the two, and on identity – how we reject it when it is imposed upon us but cling to us when there is a suggestion it be taken away. The distinction is made between what people do because of their faith, and what they insist others do because of their faith. Also some interesting postulations on what might if happened if…if this war or that one had been one or lost, and on whether there is a single point when the world slipped from what it was into what it is. One character suggests 1914, another says 1979. Debates – adults revisiting the debates of their youth. Something we could maybe all benefit from doing from time to time.

It takes place over 16 days, from the phone call to the end, and is made up of myriad voices. Adam is the main story-teller. He is supposed to be writing a biography of Atilla the Hun, but in taking time out to 'go home' he starts writing a diary-cum-memoir instead. He tells us not only his own story but those of the friends he is reconnecting with, by recounting the conversations – so we get different voices, different accounts, but naturally coloured by his recollection of them. To add authenticity to his telling, he copies into his notebook emails from friends in this present, and letters from their past. Around all of this author, at times, steps out of Adam's head and gives us an external narration of what is happening beyond. It's a reasonable device for setting up, what is simply an extended conversation, wrapped in memories of different lives, which serve themselves simply to tell a greater history.

But all of that is embedded in the relationships between people who were once the closest of friends, until they weren't. Some friendships were severed, others simply drifted. One of the key messages, I think is about the most mundane of things: people change. And stay the same. And often it takes someone who knew us then and comes back to us now to see what the change is and what is the same, and also maybe why.

I have a number of pages turned down, always a good sign, of things I want 'to keep' or think some more about. It's a book that points you to the particular, but also to the whole of humanity – many of the ideas and notions and responses stretch way beyond the Middle East – perhaps why Maalouf has among his characters those who left and those who stayed, and those who left he scattered from France to Brazil to the USA, all bringing differing perspectives back to bear.

There are some wonderful images and analogies. I particularly like one where he inverts the idea of a monastery being an oasis No, quite the opposite...The world is an oasis, and here we are in the vast immensity that surrounds it. In an oasis, people spend their time loading and unloading caravans. Seen from here, the caravans are no more than silhouettes on the horizon. Nothing is more beautiful than a caravan seen from a distance. But when you come closer, it is noisy, dirty, the camel drivers are quarrelsome, and the animals mistreated.

It was only in talking to someone about it afterwards that I spotted the ambiguity in the title. Disoriented. Dis-oriented.

This might not be an emotional book, but it is an extremely intelligent one that deserves to be read more slowly than I did on this first reading. I'll take more time over the second.

If you enjoy this we can also recommend Palestinian Walks: Notes from a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh

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