Amin Maalouf was born in Beirut, his mother in Cairo (where his parents also married) and he later moved to France, when the Lebanese civil war started in 1975. All these places, plus others like Istanbul and Haifa, are present in Ports of Call
, as the characters move to and fro between them. Above all there is the Levant, the Ancient Land, the magical place where the sun rises (in French, levant
, while Orient derives from the Latin oriens
One day, while on the metro, the narrator recognizes a man from a picture in his history book (how crazy is that?). He follows the man and eventually manages to talk to him, even break the barrier of being strangers, which prompts the old man to recount his life. When the narrator asks Ossyan Ketabdar to begin his story from the moment he was born, the latter replies: Are you sure the life of a human being begins at birth?
What follows is a story so complex and unbelievable that it almost seems to be true. Some of it has the dreamlike quality of a fairy tale, or a tale from A Thousand and One Nights
Amin Maalouf has an undeniable gift for storytelling and I must confess I've fallen under his spell. More than a love story, Ports of Call
paints the distinctive portrait of a family whose members are anything but normal. Ossyan Ketabdar comes from a noble family which used to govern the Ottoman Empire; his grandmother had a peculiar condition, his father had an unusual childhood, while Ossyan is predestined to a far from ordinary life. He leaves the suffocating world of his father's house in Beirut and goes to France to study medicine. Here his life trajectory changes in unexpected ways and he will meet the love of his life.
All race and religion barriers are meant to be crossed in this novel, as Ossyan's father, a Turk, marries an Armenian girl, while Ossyan himself marries a Jewish. Yet, when the only physical barrier that mattered had to be crossed, it proved to be impossible, which changed the fate of the two lovers, Ossyan and Clara.
Two thirds into the novel, I was engrossed in the story so much that I felt it deserved 5 stars, but towards the end I was revolted by the account of Ossyan's last twenty years - it felt too dramatic, too forced. How can a writer do such a thing to his main character? Yet, what happened to Ossyan could happen in real life, too.
I'm not sure why, but I've perceived Ports of Call
as complementary to Amos Oz' A Tale of Love and Darkness
, especially as the first was recounted from the other side of the barricade, the Muslim side. Having Amos Oz'm memoir still fresh in my mind, I tended to believe that what I read in Ports of Call
was also true.