Review: Les désorientés, by Amin Maalouf
Ugh I love Amin Maalouf so much (and before anybody gets too disappointed - yes, there is an English translation available of this book, here). The title of this book, Les désorientés, carries in it the double meaning that Maalouf and his narrator Adam carry through the entirety of the narrative - that of being disoriented, removed, both from the identity you've created for yourself and the identity that people will assign you.
There wasn't so much of a plot in this book, more of a long, meandering philosophizing on immigration, the experience of being an expat, how childhood friends can fall apart and come back together again, nostalgia, and how homegoing is never as easy or as smooth as you think it's going to be. The analysis is visited through the lens of Adam's trip back to his homeland (it's never named, but it's probably safe to assume it's Lebanon, as this book - according to Maalouf himself - is extremely autofictional) to attend a childhood friend's funeral, and the exploration of his relationship with his friend Mourad, and the rest of his university gang of buddies, and the way their lives and different experiences of expatriation have affected their relationships. The novel alternates between Adam's diary entries, which are his musings on his efforts to bring all his friends together after Mourad's funeral for a brief reunion, and the present-day conversations he's having with his friends as they all gather at a hotel. I think the fractured chronology and the changing formats suited this novel really well, even if the dialogue did feel a bit stilted and unrealistic and by page 400 that did start to grate a bit - but the ambiguity, the gentle free flow, of the flipping back and forth in the novel really serves to underlie the uncertainty in everything Adam is trying to reflect on.
And, ugh, the writing is just so exquisitely beautiful. Several of Maalouf's sentences, I just wanted to pop into my mouth and suck on like a candy. His imagery is lush and evocative, his characters are richly nuanced, and when he gets into a long stretch of uninterrupted writing, the poetry and symbolism of his writing style is honestly enough to completely floor you. I don't believe in marking up my books, but Maalouf is one of the writers that makes me reconsider that - I want to be able to underline my favorite passages and come back to them over and over again.
And ugh, that ending - an unbelievable gut punch, come out of nowhere, that retrospectively made the book that much more haunting and made me gasp and sob simultaneously.
I highly recommend this book, but maybe not as something to sit through in one sitting - because it is so meandering and thought-provoking as opposed to a plot with characters, it's something to maybe read in chunks as you dip in and out of it, to keep reacquainting yourself with the glory of this writing. And please read his novels, they're completely gorgeous (my favorites are Le Rocher de Tanios, which won him the Goncourt, and Le Premier siècle après Béatrice, both available in English translations).