Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Cyclist

Berberian, Viken. The Cyclist: A Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

I know almost nothing about Berberian as a writer. According to he writes for newspapers, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Financial Times, and others. He has a second novel out, Das Kapital: A Novel of Love and Money Markets, 2007.  When I say that Berberian is a poet, I do not know whether or not he writes poetry, but his use of language in The Cyclist shows a love and mastery of language that one associates with the careful precise use of poets. Berberian's protagonist is a young man who, the reader learns only towards the end of the novel, was recruited into a terrorist organization (the Academy) following a major bomb explosion of his natal village market square. His target is to be the Summerland Hotel on the beaches of Lebanon. It is clear that this act of revenge is to be carried out regardless of the loss of innocent lives, beleaguered citizens of a battle scarred country.

In preparation for this attack, the protagonist trains to take part in a bicycle race, eventually to veer off from the pack, and to take the bomb to the hotel where he will activate it to kill the maximum number of people. Having sustained great injuries as a result of his training, the novel opens with the cyclist in a hospital bed, unable to blink, unable to eat, unable to move, unable to speak because of a cycling accident. Through careful attention from medical experts and familial and Academy members, one of whom he is a childhood friend Ghaemi who he is very much in love with, the cyclist makes complete recovery.

The novel is written in a sort of stream of consciousness. The reader is unclear what is going on, because the narrator is also only partially informed and aware of what is happening. We have no idea whether Ghaemi loves him or is acting as a loyal member of the Academy. We do not know the sincerity of the leader Sadji who travels, buys clothes at the most expensive boutiques, and, in the name of deception and fact finding, spends time recreating with the higher levels of society. We do know that neither Ghaemi nor Sadji intend to risk their lives to carry out their prime initiative. Neither do we know whether they have had something to do with the accident that put the cyclist in the hospital, whether anything they say can believed beyond its power to manipulate the protagonist.

The cyclist is a lover of food and this figures as prominently in his thoughts as love and desire for Ghaemi. Once out of the hospital, the cyclist follows the path set out for him by the Academy. The reader begins to see the events that have brought him to the point of carrying out mass murder, but the logic of an action that harms the same people who are being avenged  is never apparent. There is no logic, only passion, and seductive power. As the cyclist inadvertently meets, face to face, people who will be victims of his action, the juice man who saved his life after the first accident, a cellist who escapes one terrorist act only to unwittingly be confronted by his, the cyclist's own grasp of the logic of his action begins to crumble.

Berberian, through his narrator, illustrates the richness of a culture eviscerated by wars and American hegemony through the succulent elements of its cuisine and culinary practices. As the protagonist prepares himself for his bloody task, he calms himself through the repetition of instructions and concepts, the importance of bicycle helmets, the baby that is his bomb and the baby that could be his and Ghaemi's true child, the listing of dishes and their ingredients.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, the cyclist attempts to explain how he has come so far beyond his passion for the tastes of his native cuisine to the task of an out of scale revenge. He tells his readers or listeners or imagined audience, "I suppose one can be philosophical and ask as I do every day why some of us return home safely after a morning of shopping at the fish market, sifting through rows of mollusk and marlin, while others become the target of a mugging, a beating, even a bombing. For years I have wrestled to find the answer. But what is the point of procrastination? The road to terrorism does not begin with boredom." (170).

It is clear as the narration progresses, that the protagonist does not want to die, and his determination to carry out the plan becomes rattled when, the night before he is to carry out the bombing, he is told by Sadji that the plan has changed and they want him to explode the bomb in effect, as a suicide, "deliver the baby straight from your bosom" (162).

The rest I leave for you to discover.

I didn't realize until after I had read the novel that it was written in 2002. Since I just bought it in a small bookstore (Bindlestiff between 44th and 45th on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia), I just assumed it was new. I was already amazed with the intricate beauty of Berberian's writing on such a the reader so much to think about and weigh, but my amazement is magnified thinking of the task of writing this so soon after the 9/11 event--provoking both sympathy and judgment in the reader.

Find this novel at a library near you.

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