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Book Review: The Cyclist by Viken Berberian

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Viken Berberian’s first novel, published by Simon & Schuster is both of high literary quality and a short, quick read.  It opens in a Johnny Got his Gun fashion with the first-person narrator in a vegetative state recovering from a cycling accident.  His mission, he explains, is to enter a cycling race that he will purposefully lose by taking a detour to deliver a bomb to a Beirut hotel, which he will then (with assistance) detonate, killing many people (and likely himself as well).

His father is Druze – the Druze being a little-known minority monotheistic sect living primarily in Lebanon and Israel.  His mother’s background is unclear, except that she is not Druze (according to the unnamed narrator, the village in which he grew up contained Druzim, Jews, Muslims and Christians, all living in peace).  When a bomb killed his girlfriend’s parents as well as other neighbors and friends, he and his girlfriend were inspired to join a terrorist organization.   There, he prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to promote world peace.  Of course he is misguided because he will harm many innocent people in the process, but the reader senses that his heart is pure.

This is a well-done character sketch, a drawn-out fantasy about how he will kill many people “in the name of world peace,” and the main character is indeed fascinating.   He has a complexity that makes him both interesting and sympathetic.  While he expresses a variety of internal conflicts, he never seems to be particularly concerned (or even aware) that his mission is going to cause a great tragedy for a large number of innocent people.  He does briefly acknowledge that it takes a great deal of mental training for one to be able to complete a mission such as his, but that is as close as the novel comes to conveying any sense that he might be concerned for the people he’ll harm.

His seeming callousness toward the hotel patrons is tempered with a voracious appetite for both food and women, and a wicked sense of humor.  He notes to himself that he’s “pithy”, even though he can’t move or speak.  At one point he has a visitor and observes that the visitor talks too much while eating, fearing he’s going to cough food all over him… of all the things to be worried about when one may never come out of a coma.  His love for food is so great that he frequently describes things, ideas and even the destruction caused by a bomb using food analogies (as well as the dismay of those around him about his “portliness”).

Something else that is striking about this novel is not just the narrator’s seeming comfort with mass, random violence, but the way in which other characters are portrayed as having a similar comfort level.  The reader is left with the impression, not that these characters are “bad,” but that growing up with unspeakable terror would cause one to internalize a certain degree of hardness and even develop a sense of humor about it as a survival mechanism.  The best illustration of this is from a juice bar in Beirut where the drinks are named after “depraved despots.”  The theme of the season is Latin America, and one of the smoothies on the menu “the Manuel Noriega.”

Using the mixed background of the character, the novel does a fantastic job of illustrating the complexities of hatred, violence and retaliation.  However, the enemy is ambiguous, purposefully it seems.  Other things in this book are left unaddressed too.  Primarily, while the ending is a surprise (the result of a last-minute twist), and part of the surprise is understandable, there was a major detail regarding why the surprise occurred that was left unexplained.  That sounds cryptic, but I don’t want to give the ending away.  Still, it is clear that Berberian intended the reader to view the ending as highly satisfying for the narrator.

Fans of good quality literary fiction, Middle Eastern cuisine, cultural/religious history, and black comedy will all find something to enjoy (and learn) in this novel.  

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