On February 4th we met to discuss The Rock of Tanios (Le rocher de tanios) by Amin Maalouf.
In this storytelling-based novel, Maalouf creates a protagonist who is an endearing mixture of precocious maturity and naivete, of remorse and resolve – and draws us in for a leisurely tale full of intrigue, twists of fate and seedy imperialist jockeying by the French, English, Turks and Egyptians. Tanios was a child of the mountains of Lebanon in the 1880’s when the Egyptians Pashas were struggling against Ottoman domination and the British & French plotted with and against each other. The novel begins with a recollection of the rock on which Tanios was last seen sitting and weaves together the strands of the fascinating legend of his disappearance.
Some of the themes we discussed are included below:
- Fate and Destiny: Whether the characters had choices, how the strength of one’s family and political forces in ‘creating’ their decisions, the ability of the characters and their communities to step out of this destiny. Could Tanios have escaped the impact of his questionable lineage? Was Raad fully conscious of the ‘sibling’ rivalry between himself and Tanios?
- Fatherhood: Maalouf added to the story’s intrigue by leaving the mystery of Tanios’ true father ambiguous – leaving poor Tanios to travel his life switching allegiances from one father figure to another (his ‘dad’, the Sheik, Roukos, the Rev, etc) Did Gerios prove himself the rightful father of Tanios by being brave and finally acting (at least in Tanios’ eyes if not by genetics)?
- For the first time in his books, Amin Maalouf talks about his home country, Lebanon, which he references poetically in the initial quote of the book – “What good arms [embrace, not weapons], what beautiful hour will give me back this region from where my slumbers and my minor movements come?” – Positioning himself with this and the seating of the modern ‘storyteller’ in the seat of the historic Tanios to consider what step to take next in the context of modern Lebanon perhaps — staying/leaving, circular choices of revenge/reconciliation, allegiances with local/international forces, etc
- Love was all over the place: 1) Tanios’ childish love of Asma quickly cooled and replaced with hatred, his passions for the orange woman more about the mystic of her fruit than an adult connection (don’t even talk) 2) Gerios’s conscious betrayal of Lamia 3) the tender connection between Sheikh and Lamia towards the end, his passion for her beyond that of the other women in the village (or his wife) and perhaps Lamia’s reluctance tinged with temptation? for the Sheikh
- Traditions of storytelling: The main story is so enrapturing you almost forget it began as a story within a story, but the storytelling So poetic, from the beginning of putting us in the mindset of a storyteller. In those days, the sky hung so low no man ever dared to stretch to his full height. In an interview Maalouf has said that his role as a writer is to create “positive myths”.
- Foreign, Revenge, Politics: Ideas of ‘Foreign’ and dividing other in communities are so strong in this book– from the neighboring village, to revenge by family, to the Egyptians, the British and the French – as is the unending revenge cycle. Both of which make it interesting to reflect on recent / current Lebanese history… There are strong parallels throughout history and into today: manipulations of internal politics of other countries as suits a larger balancing act/war between great powers. Tanios and his family, his village, his country were so buffeted by revenge and different maneuvering. We also talked about whether Maalouf’s treatment of feudal society vs. colonialism cliché or romanticized.
- The idea of life’s transitions as Passages, from the start of the ‘The Second Passage’ – we have an explination of passages as a “manifest sign of fate – an intrusion which can be cruel, or ironic, or providential – and also a milestone, a stage in an exceptional existence” – beautiful way of thinking about transitions, about movement, especially as Maalouf continues to say “the temptation of Lamia was, in the destiny of Tanios, the preliminary passage; the one from which all the others were to stem”
- We reflected some on our reader’s reactions to Maalouf’s other works, including the non-fiction Les identité meurtriè [Deadly Identities] and two previous Kutub readings – Leo Africanus and The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.
A biography of Amin Maalouf’s life can be found: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/maalouf.htm
Maalouf Talks about his latest book “Origins” follow this link: http://leb.net/~aljadid/interviews/AminMaaloufTalksabouthislatestbookOrigins.html
For an excerpt from Maalouf’s “Les identité meurtriè [Deadly Identities]” follow this link or see below: http://leb.net/~aljadid/essays/DeadlyIdentities.html
An interesting response to the book from a reader can be found here: http://melmagblog.blogspot.com/2008/05/reaction-to-rock-of-tanios.html