The Storyteller is the wheel not reinvented, but refined. It’s a straightforward road-tripping adventure peppered with themes of family bonds, betrayal, and secrecy.
It will teach you about the tragic and tumultuous history of Lebanon and its people, their suffering and their survival. It’s a straightforward tale which happily sacrifices pretence for direct messages and engaging story moments.
Translated from German, The Storyteller is a novel inspired by a real family – that of the author, Pierre Jarawan. Jarawan himself was born in Lebanon and moved to Germany at the age of three.
His father, a Lebanese man, was an emphatic storyteller, and the obvious influence for the title character of this novel. Though the storyteller of the book is wholly more complex and mysterious.
“This was our place, our home. Here, people helped each other. Here no one needed a compass … And in the thick of it all, Father, who loved a party and limped in circles around all his new friends, like a satellite in orbit.”
The plot of The Storyteller concerns Samir, a boy born in 80s Germany to parents who were Lebanese refugees fleeing the Lebanese Civil War.
Shortly after Samir turns eight, his father Brahim disappears. In the lead up to his disappearance, Brahim begins receiving covert phone calls which he claims to be from Samir’s grandmother in Beirut.
Finally, the night before he vanishes, he tells one of his many heartfelt bedtime stories to Samir. These stories are like Greek adventure tales describing a Lebanese hero – Abu Youssef, who saves the day – a clear foreshadowing of things to come.
Samir ponders, after his father’s disappearance, whether these stories may have been a kind of confession from his father.
From then on, the narrative is split between an older Samir fleeing to Beirut in search of his father, and flashbacks to his fatherless childhood with all the bullying, isolation, fear, and sorrow he suffers in Germany.
Adult Samir has left his fiancée behind, a woman who insists that he must settle his past before he can begin his future (“Will you still be here when I come back?” – “It doesn’t matter when you come back. The question is how you come back.”)
Whether his father ever even came to Beirut, let alone still lives, is a heavy question that only grows heavier as the journey presses on.
“I would have opened my eyes and looked at him and registered it all. So that I’d never forget. I would have forced myself to look at him. But I was too sleepy. And so the last I saw of my father was his silhouette in the doorway and him – so I believe – looking at me fondly.”
Tightening the Screws
The story feels oddly familiar. A few tweaks and it could be a Greek tragedy, a 19th-century Russian epic, or an American road novel. There’s a real itch of déjà vu that teases at you as you read it. You’ve read stories like this before.
But this one feels so weighted, so harmoniously designed, so balanced. Its dialogue is light, fun, pacey, and witty. Its scenes shift from one to another like to the rhythm of a drum. Samir, his father and mother, his father’s Muslim friend Hakim and his daughter Yasmin – all of these characters are planned out in their movements and actions, words and feelings.
They feel alive and breathing, and you feel connected to them entirely.
A flashback to before Samir was born, as his father recalls the sports hall he and many Lebanese were holed up in upon arrival to Germany, details his will to let the divide between Muslims and Christians in Beirut be forgotten.
He is a Christian; Hakim is a Muslim; they are both Lebanese, and so they are brothers. This is even more of an impactful moment when you consider the discovered photograph which drove Brahim to vanish.
From Samir’s young perspective the understanding of the photograph is effectively made hazy. But it’s clear enough to paint an image of Brahim’s increasingly dark and enigmatic past.
“A Muslim who drinks wine?”
He put his finger to his lips, signalling me to keep my voice down.
“We’re pretty high up here, nearly 2000 metres – getting closer to Allah. I’ll answer that question when we’re back in Beirut.”
The layers are peeled back and the adventure is exciting. The story beats are subtly dramatic and gravitational – they draw you in and draw your mood down.
Part of the success of all of this is the truly wonderful translation by the team of Irish translators, Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl.
These gifted translators have perfectly captured the rhythm of the story, the comedy and tragedy in the dialogue, and the deep, deep sorrow felt by Samir. Nothing is lost; everything is felt. They’ve done such a good job and they deserve all our thanks.
As I said at the beginning, there is nothing new here in the story’s telling. What we have instead is a very personal, intimate tale of Lebanon’s recent past – something to educate us in an engaging, loving way.
It’s told from a place of knowledge and honesty. The Storyteller is also a heap of words collected, thinned out, shaved, carved, smoothed out, and polished into a refined and gripping tale of love – love for one’s family, friends, country, people, and home.
If you like the sound of this book, you may enjoy The Book of Tehran and The Book of Cairo