Reviewed by Arshia Haq
In his novel I, the Divine, Rabih Alameddine suggests that within each life is lived a thousand and one lives. He innovatively portrays the human impulse to forge these multiple fragments of experience into a single self. At the center of the book is Sarah Nour El-Din, born to an American mother and Lebanese father in pre-war Beirut. Sarah, named by her grandfather for the "divine" actress Sarah Bernhardt, is only two years old when her father unceremoniously ships his foreign bride back to the States in exchange for the familiar comforts of a traditional Lebanese woman. This early rupture of identity plagues Sarah in her childhood and adolescence, through two failed marriages and numerous thwarted love affairs, and pursues her across several seas when she emigrates to the U.S.
Usually this conceit—the all-too-familiar-culturally-dislocated-female character trying to construct a coherent persona—would make me run for the hills. It's not that I don't have sympathy for immigrants or women—I happen to be both myself. But far too often, I find these portraits reductive. They tend to be naively and stridently feminist (the rallying cry of I Will Survive always struck me as having a latent chord of desperation), and written in slick and global women's lit prose reminiscent of the Marguerite Duras/Anais Nin mode of MMMM (that is, Memoirs written by Muses for Misogynist Men). Not to mention that diasporic art in its first generation can get mired in the primary circumstances of uprooting, unable to transcend the narrative of the displaced to become a literary work in its own right.
But Alameddine's novel tells this story differently. Each chapter of the book is a first chapter, an aborted attempt to create a narrative. Each chapter Sarah begins her history from a different place in her life—she speaks from a childhood memory, a dream, a lover's bed, a series of letters. She elides the first, second and third person and assumes the voices of other characters within her tales. At times the same event is related from different vantage points, revealing the fallibility and willfulness of memory.
There are certainly stilted moments in I, the Divine, especially towards the end as the literary gimmick begins to wear itself thin. A formal device becomes a coup when navigated by a masterful hand, as in Calvino's Invisible Cities or the exquisite opus of Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red. It's clear that Alameddine admires these works, but his mimicry of the style is clumsy as he lacks a sophisticated integration of form and content. And while he deserves credit for a fairly convincing attempt to write in a woman's voice, he does sometimes choose shock value over subtlety, and there is inevitably (for this reader) a lack of complexity in his character development. What is lacking in depth, though, is satiated by range and pleasure in the book's unpredictable set of false starts. Each beginning is a failed attempt to find an end or a clean resolution or even some sense of value in a life, as if each beginning were a wave creating itself as it breaks on the shore and immediately eroding itself in its retreat. Yet these failures as a composite reveal a successful memoir, which by its very nature remains a story to be continued.
Arshia Haq is a writer and film editor who divides her time between New York and Los Angeles.