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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Once Upon Many Times

“The Hakawati” uses one of the oldest forms of storytelling, the frame tale. Western readers know it from “The Canterbury Tales,” but the device precedes Chaucer by well over a thousand years, originating in Sanskrit texts known variously as the “Panchatantra,” “The Fables of Bidpai” or “Tales of Kalila and Dimna.” As Doris Lessing notes in her introduction to the most recent English translation, one version of the Sanskrit framing narrative has Alexander the Great enlisting an Indian sage to reform a cruel potentate by telling him stories. In another, an Indian king uses the stories to arouse the curiosity of his three sons, whose brains have gone soft from privilege. Whatever the original frame, the history of the whole collection is a record of the cross-fertilization of cultures. Through storytelling, the conquered and the conquering can become as close as family.

In “The Hakawati,” the framing narrative, set in 2003, concerns a young man’s trip from Los Angeles to his father’s deathbed in Beirut. There he and his relatives exchange jokes, tear-jerking tales, cliffhangers and legends during the weeks of their vigil. Some of their stories are contemporary — the description of an impetuous sister’s wedding, a great-grandfather falling in love, troubles at the family’s car dealership, the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, the demise of a favorite uncle. But their wellspring is ancient and varied: Alameddine has poached from and transformed parables from the “Panchatantra,” the Old Testament, Homer, Ovid, the Koran, the uncensored “Thousand and One Nights,” a collection of medieval gay poetry called “The Delight of Hearts,” “Flowers From a Persian Garden” and many other sources. Yet this novelist, like his characters, isn’t content to leave the tales as they are. “By nature,” he writes in his acknowledgments, “a storyteller is a plagiarist. Everything one comes across — each incident, book, novel, life episode, story, person, news clip — is a coffee bean that will be crushed, ground up, mixed with a touch of cardamom, sometimes a pinch of salt, boiled thrice with sugar and served as a piping-hot tale.”

Once Upon Many Times


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