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7 november 2021

Charif Majdalani's Caravansérail is the kind of historical novel I really enjoy, a low-key, lovingly detailed book that you can steep yourself in – I took over a week to read it even though it's barely 200 pages long.

Our hero is Samuel Ayyad. Caravansérail has a first-person narrator, but it is not Samuel; it is his grandson, telling family stories about the long ago. But one senses that there is a lot of Samuel Ayyad in this grandson. Samuel's own character note is that he tells family stories, with a hint of adventure and one suspects a hint of embellishment. But the stories are told with wry humor in a self-effacing manner, and they endear Samuel to the many powerful and dangerous people he meets in the course of his life's one big adventure.

We know from the start that Samuel, single and childless, will become the narrator's grandfather, so we are not in fear for his life. But he gets into some very perilous situations in the course of Caravansérail. A young Lebanese man from a learned family, fluent in Arabic, French, and English, Samuel enters the civilian employ of the British regime in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, in the run-up to the First World War. The Great Game is well underway, and the British, unable to impose their will on the tribes who inhabit the vast regions they nominally control, resort to diplomacy, bribery, and micro-applications of force, getting their way mostly by pitting various local powers against one another. In this kind of empire-craft, people like Samuel are indispensable. They not only speak both languages but they inhabit both worlds.

Samuel is a subaltern, of course, and never really at home in any culture but his own, faraway Lebanon. But the Empire is generous and can make its servants into powers unto themselves. As he travels, Samuel acquires big bags of gold and eventually, the possession that gives Majdalani's book its title: an entire North African palace, dismantled for shipment by camel train. He acquires this white elephant from another Lebanese wanderer, named Chafic Abyad, who seems to be his long-lost spiritual twin. Both men see some advantage to toting this completely useless item across absurd distances, at first with the intention of making a profit on it and increasingly because they have become attached to its very absurdity.

(To clarify: caravansérail, usually spelled in English without the final "l," actually means a resting place for caravans, a sort of pre-motor motor court. But since sérail can mean "palace" [related to "seraglio"], a witty character quips (66) that Samuel is traveling with a true caravansérail, a palace-caravan. OK, it's not the most hilarious pun ever made; but it does its work, since much of the story occurs at the caravan's various stopping places.)

Samuel totes his palace from Africa to Arabia, where, still in the employ of the British, he enters Lawrentian legend and briefly meets T.E. himself, reflecting only that the hero's culturally-appropriated costume looks a bit baggy on him. Then it's off on an impossible journey through a war zone to distant Lebanon, and I will not spoil the twists of the plot from that point on.

Majdalani draws on many literary and cultural references (and doubtless many that I miss, from my own American bubble). The Christian Bible is a touchstone at times (Samuel is a Christian, to the wonder of the mostly-Muslim people he meets). French literature from Pascal to Proust lies behind much of the book's language: one paragraph, on p.108, has exactly the rhythm of Proust, and though one might not expect Proustian echoes in a desert adventure story, Samuel's successes owe much to his ease in high society and his ability to spin tales about the monde.

The most insistent precursor that came to my mind as I was reading Caravansérail, though, was Fitzcarraldo. The whole project of transporting something beautiful, useless, and totally out of place overland through a hostile environment cannot help but recall Werner Herzog's film. The most Fitzcarraldan moment is even in a miniature subplot, in which another Lebanese expatriate wrangles a piano all the way to Khartoum, where "les ouvriers soudanais maladroits … le laissent glisser dans le Nil au fond duquel il repose depuis" (96) – clumsy Sudanese laborers let it slip into the Nile, where it still rests on the river bottom.

Majdalani, Charif. Caravansérail. Paris: Seuil, 2007.