By Viken Berberian
Published by Simon & Schuster
March 2002; 0743222830; 189 pages
You should always wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. The helmet should fit snugly. The chin strap should hold firmly against the throat. The buckle should be fastened securely. Consider this: last year there were 11 bike accidents in Iceland, 371 in France and 97 in England. I have no statistics from Holland, but surely, if I had been riding my bicycle on its flat land, I would have been spared my tragedy.
The same cannot be said about my place of origin. Nothing could have prepared me for it. Not even the helmet I took on my impossible tour from Mount Barouk to Beirut: a 71-kilometer calamitous road with a stretch of cedar trees on one side and flustered sheep on the other. There are few bicycles here. The main medium of movement remains the Mercedes 240D, with the runty Fiat coming in a close second. The cars cruise past the woolly sheep, with speeds in excess of an armored Hummer, their wheels rolling over steely lizards grilled in the heat of summer. No matter. I wanted this trip to be a trying hadj. In the West, you call it a pilgrimage.
I'll spare you the grisly details of my surgery, except to say that the butcher who sent me into my torpid sleep sliced a section of my gray matter like a knife-wielding chef about to serve a cold-cut platter. I now spend my days in a bed. My head is shaved. My limbs are sore and my face, which in normal times has a chocolate hue, is bludgeoned blue. My mouth smells like fermented lentil stew. My portly build has turned pita thin, the round bread I ate as a tubby kid. My diet is more severe than any I ever went on. I'm fed twenty-four hours a day, intravenously. In the morning, the nurse checks the tracheotomy. By noontime, the spectators flock in: sweet and sour faces from around the world; more friends, more family. A cauldron of compassion. It's the most unappetizing part of the day because they have no idea that in the hard prison of my head I can actually see them and hear everything they say. Little do they know that my typically lucid thoughts still race through my head with unparalleled speed, shifting into a lull only when I fall asleep. On the outside, I'm cool and composed: unable to swivel my neck or tongue, or, for that matter, any other part of my body. Not even my fiercely autonomous pinky. Yet every afternoon, when Ghaemi Basmati crawls into my room, my heart beats faster. Even before our calculated crime, our fates were intertwined like grapevines.
Ghaemi sneaks into my room with a tidy box of sweets. I hope that one day she'll cradle our baby too, softer than a puffy choux. My room smells like a hot oven tucked with tender loaves. Tempting treats in boxes of various sizes and shapes colonize the floor, some of them concealed under my sheets. "I brought you homemade matzo cake," Ghaemi says. My appetite is a mess. Even my unflappable eyelids lose their resilient steadiness. Ghaemi pokes her nose into my lumbering body, touches my face. She's hunting for clues, scouring my features to find traces of my robust cheeks: they're completely spent since my accident. I appreciate all the visitors who have flown from the far corners of the world to keep me company. If truth be told (with a teaspoon of refined white lie for flavor), they treat me as if I'm a cherub, pinching my cheek in an effort to make me squeak. Little do they know that a baby will remain in a state of stupor until it's ready to express its point of view. It takes time to simmer a bowl of Yemeni chicken stew.
I used to love Yemeni soup with atomic intensity. But my love for the dish burst like an embassy and I began to search for answers in cookbooks again. I borrowed them from my father's collection when he was out sipping black coffee with his highbrow friends. Many of the recipes he has acquired belong to a genre of fusion, sending the reader into complete confusion while undermining the tenets of the classical cook. My dad is something of an esthete, a wimpy art prof at the university. My ambition was to avoid the ranks of the literati. I dreamt of a less sedentary existence, convinced that truth cannot be found in text. That's why I'm salivating over my invitation to next month's event: a shower party that even the biggest superpowers of the world will be unable to prevent.Copyright © 2002 by Viken Berberian
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
The Cyclist is a stunningly original novel about food and political violence. It's a psychological ride into the tropics of terror, to the edges of our national and existential borders: the ones set at birth, the ones we are born into.
The enigmatic narrator is a young trainee of the Academy, a terrorist group in the present-day Middle East. This unnamed, transnational pawn has a single mission: to deliver a bomb by bicycle to a hotel, where it will explode, killing hundreds of civilians. But his story is anything but simple.
Combining surrealism, tragedy and humor, The Cyclist is a journey into the unsettling workings of the terrorist mind. Even as the narrator ponders his mission, only his musings about food and love reveal clues to his nationality and his agenda. But can such a zestful connoisseur also be a true agent of political violence?
Witty and wildly inventive, The Cyclist is a remarkable debut from a gifted novelist.
Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
Viken Berberian lives in New York City where he researches New York Stock Exchange-traded companies at an investment firm. In 2000 he received a grant from the Arpa foundation for the Film Music and Art (AFFMA).