Origins

A Memoir

By Amin Maalouf; Catherine Temerson (Translator)
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374227326, 416pp.)

Publication Date: May 13, 2008

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Description

Origins, by the world-renowned writer Amin Maalouf, is a sprawling, hemisphere-spanning, intergenerational saga. Set during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth—in the mountains of Lebanon and in Havana, Cuba—Origins recounts the family history of the generation of Maalouf’s paternal grandfather, Boutros Maalouf. Maalouf sets out to discover the truth about why Boutros, a poet and educator in Lebanon, traveled across the globe to rescue his younger brother, Gabrayel, who had settled in Havana. What follows is the gripping excavation of a family’s hidden past. Maalouf is an energetic and amiable narrator, illuminating the more obscure corners of late Ottoman nationalism, the psychology of Lebanese sectarianism, and the dynamics of family quarrels. He moves with great agility across time and space, and across genres of writing. But he never loses track of his story’s central thread: his quest to lift the shadow of legend from his family’s past.  Origins is at once a gripping family chronicle and a timely consideration of Lebanese culture and politics. Amin Maalouf was a journalist in Lebanon until the civil war in 1975, when he left for Paris with his family. His work has been translated into more than forty languages, and his books have won prestigious prizes, including the Prix Goncourt. Origins is at once a personal, family chronicle and a timely consideration of Lebanese culture and politics. Set during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth—in the mountains of Lebanon and in Havana, Cuba—Origins is a hemisphere-spanning, intergenerational story by world-renowned writer Amin Maalouf.  The book recounts the family history of the generation of Maalouf’s paternal grandfather, Boutros Maalouf. Maalouf sets out to discover why Boutros, a poet and educator in Lebanon, traveled across the globe to rescue his younger brother, Gabrayel, who had settled in Havana. His search for the true story becomes an excavation of a family’s hidden past.

Maalouf is an energetic and amiable narrator, illuminating the more obscure corners of late Ottoman nationalism, the psychology of Lebanese sectarianism, and the dynamics of family quarrels. He moves with great agility across time and space and across genres of writing, but he never loses track of his story’s central thread: his quest to lift the shadow of legend from his family’s past. "Expatriate Lebanese novelist Maalouf explores the gap between family legend and family history . . . Maalouf's narrative gains in emotional immediacy from its lack of the polished presentation often found in memoirs. We witness him sobbing on his Paris apartment floor in front of the trunk, devastated to realize how much he doesn't know. We rejoice with him at finding the decorated tomb of his great uncle . . . While exploring his own history, Maalouf inevitably stumbles across the effects of events played on the larger screen of his country and the world, such as the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and World War I. His kin's reactions to tragedies and triumphs both personal and universal add to the book's vibrant texture and tone."—Kirkus Reviews
"Along comes Amin Maalouf with his lovely, complex memoir, Origins, to remind us that Arab identity is as fluid, unsettled and ever-changing as the Mediterranean Sea where it kisses the shores of Lebanon, his country of origin, and France, where he has lived for the last 30 years . . . In Origins, Maalouf focuses mainly on his grandfather Botros, a schoolteacher who, having failed in business (he wanted to grow tobacco in the Bekaa plain), lives instead 'between notebooks and inkwells'; and on his more successfully entrepreneurial great uncle Gebrayel (his grandfather’s younger brother), who left Lebanon in late 1895 for the United States and three years later for Cuba. They are a study in contrasts. Botros, a dandified intellectual determined to bring enlightenment to his corner of the mountains, scandalously refuses to have his children baptized, sets up a 'Universal School' and roams his village bareheaded in a suit and cape, while Gebrayel establishes a successful retail business in Havana, only to die there under tragic circumstances . . . The descriptions of his brief sojourn in Havana—frustrations and impasses followed by an unexpected denouement involving a long-lost cousin—are the most gripping and evocative chapters in the memoir . . . Maalouf doesn’t only want to illuminate family history or amplify stories barely whispered for a hundred years; instead, he strives to reveal the fecund variety of his own family, of Arab life and history, of history itself. In doing so, he offers a lesson in the value of impermanence and shifting sands . . . Maalouf wants nothing more than to unwind the long scarf of memory and history, not to make a claim, but in celebration of human dignity, endeavor and 'wanderers who have lost their way.' He is one of that small handful of writers, like David Grossman and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who are indispensable to us in our current crisis."—Jonathan Wilson, The New York Times Book Review "When Amin Maalouf, the faithful chronicler of this meticulously reconstructed family memoir, finally meets a distant elderly descendant of the Cuban Branch of his Lebanese family, it is surprisingly moving. Maalouf's memoir focuses on two brothers—his grandfather Botros and his great-uncle Gebrayel—and their separate lives, one in Havana, the other in the Lebanese village of Machrah . . . In exhaustive detail, Maalouf locates and describes the conflicting values among the family members and provides a history not only of his clan but of his country."—Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

"Amin Maalouf is a novelist and journalist who left his native Lebanon over 30 years ago to live in Paris. In this memoir, he focuses on the life of his grandfather Boutros who also contemplated leaving his homeland, over and over again, but never did; Boutros was urged to leave by his brother, Gebrayel, who had emigrated to Cuba. Maalouf gives us not only the arc of these two men's lives, but an account of how he found his history by mining his relative's memories, along with letters and documents (the family has always had a strong relationship with the written word; Maalouf possesses an ancient book detailing his genealogy and a trunk of papers saved by his mother.) This memoir illuminates the way we make narrative out of pieces of fact and rumor and also serves as a revealing glimpse into the complexities of a part of the world to which nationhood came late and where borders remain unusually porous and slippery. Boutros was a poet, an educator who believed that girls should be in the classroom along with boys, an eccentric iconoclast who dressed as he pleased, going about his village bareheaded and with a black cape swirling around his shoulders. he believed—sometimes despairingly—in the perfectibility of his homeland, hoping, according to his grandson, 'to build our own United States at home in the Levant, a federation of the different Ottoman provinces, where the diverse communities would coexist, where everyone would read the newspapers, and where corruption and arbitrary rule would no longer prevail.' The pace of the book is magisterial . . . A journey well worth taking, an elegant




About the Author

Amin Maalouf was a journalist in Lebanon until the civil war in 1975, when he left for Paris with his family. His work has been translated into more than forty languages, and his books have won prestigious prizes, including the Prix Goncourt.



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