At the opening of Rabih Alameddine’s THE ANGEL OF HISTORY, Ya’qub (Anglicized to Jacob), a Yemeni-born poet living in San Francisco, is hearing voices. A sassy, elegantly dressed Satan, visible and audible only to Jacob, is taunting him to remember his painful past. Jacob wants more than anything to forget, and he is aided by dour-faced, black-clad Death, who doesn’t see the point in Jacob’s remembering. A struggle ensues for Jacob’s memories, borne witness to by the colorful characters of 14 saints.
Jacob has reason to want to forget: during the course of six months, he lost half a dozen of his closest friends, including his partner, to AIDS. He is the only one left to remember and mourn them. He fights against the erasure of his suffering despite the cost to his mental health, furiously bursting out to a young man toward the beginning of the novel: “How can you not know your history? . . . You with your righteous apathy, how can you allow the world to forget us, to delete our existence, the grand elision of queer history?”
A series of additional erasures aid Satan in his attempts to convince Jacob to remember. As the United States begins to send drones to attack the countries he grew up in, Jacob grapples anew with his anger and grief over the unacknowledged devastation wrought by American imperialism in the Middle East.
Alameddine deftly sketches the intersection of Jacob’s identities as a gay man and as an Arab—both groups that have been “othered,” feared, and attacked in and by the West. As Jacob attempts to define his place in the context of the systems of power that have silenced him and erased his and his loved ones’ suffering, his remembering becomes an act of resistance.
THE ANGEL OF HISTORY, at its heart, is not only about memory but also about what—and who—is made out to be monstrous. Satan says toward the end of the novel, “I’m just someone who finally said no to an unreasonable demand.” The novel is both beautiful and unsettling because it asks of the reader: Who does society view as monstrous because they refuse to bend to systems of power? Alameddine explores this question with quick turns of lyrical sincerity, deep grief, and taciturn humor, telling Jacob’s story in frantic, raw prose punctuated by sharp flashes of wit that search for the sacred within the profane. As Jacob is invited to own his shame and his loss, Alameddine reminds the reader that to accept one’s darkness is also to claim the unruly beauty—and the strength to finally say no—that is to be found there.