(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 26, 2002)
"It is said that when you feed friends you buy their loyalty. Of course that depends on what kind of food you serve. You will never see me salivate over a tureen of lentil soup."
A food obsessed terrorist delivering a bomb by bicycle? When I first read the blurb on this book, I knew I'd have to read it. Talk about strangely comic and original! Of course, this book could have gone either way, but I'm happy to report it delivers very nicely (unlike our cyclist and his bomb!). As bits and pieces of the planned terrorist act and its motivation are revealed, we are treated to a bouquet of images that trigger our senses (especially gastronomically), giving a strong sense to the topography and aroma of the Middle East countries. The cyclist's fascination with food and odors captures the real immediacy one must feel knowing that at any moment life and death are just moments apart. "The mundane necessities of life require that we go about our way. But we are never secure enough to be sure that that day will not be our last." As much as our cyclist is prepared to die in an act of terrorism, he is a little jolted over coming so close to death in a bicycle accident with his body turned "pita thin."
As this novel opens, our cyclist is in a "torpid sleep," laid up in a hospital bed in Bekáa, Lebanon after undergoing brain surgery as a result of a bicycle accident. The cyclist struggles to heal quickly so that he can deliver a bomb to a five-star hotel in Beirut. Ironically, he must live in order to execute the shocking death of hundreds and possibly including himself (it is no longer "blood for blood, soul for soul, child for child . now the calculus has changed. The decimals have become more damning. We are considering using multiplication signs instead"). To encourage his recovery, a parade of visitors come and go, each bring a favorite treat and take their own pokes at him to see if he'll react. His girlfriend, Ghaemi takes every private opportunity to play with his "plums." Even his bed neighbor comes over for a gander, a smoke or to bring news of other cyclists. His bed is filled with his favorite foods. The 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 the sheets."
Eventually the visitors provoke him from his "sclerotic calm." Sadji, the leader of the team, provides him with a replacement bicycle and helmet and now the cyclist is ready to begin his ride. But first he trundles down to Ras Beirut where he makes a quick stop at an Internet Cafe and onward to Rue Samadi where he pedals his way "past a kaleidoscope of cultures: on the sidewalk a frayed philistine hawks soap made with olive oil; a street merchant sells handcrafted crosses from a gold chain; a woman veiled in dark green offers buckets of bulgur and other grains." And then he has his last supper at restaurant Marroush where a caged parrot mimics the incoming whistle of a howitzer missile. His last stop before his fateful ride is to meet Sadji and Ghaemi at Beirut's B 018 nightclub.
The Cyclist is a perfect novel for a book reading group. I have read it twice and although I'm fairly certain about the book ending, I feel that a discussion would still be enlightening. Berberian serves plenty of food for thought (pardon the pun). There is a lot of symbolism, some obvious, such as the association of lentil soup with death, and others more obscure and worthy of discussion. Then there is the whole relationship between Ghaemi and the cyclist. In my opinion, she plays a key role in the cyclist's recruitment, but I am mixed about her expectations for the outcome especially after the news she delivers at the nightclub. Does she want him alive or a martyr to her cause? What is the significance of his half-Druze identity? I also think that the cyclist's description of Sadji as Designer of Deception leaves room for interpretation as to whom he is deceiving, never mind, his use of The Academy funds for his shopping sprees or his possible role in Leng's death. Finally, a discussion would have to explore whether or not the cyclist ever really intends to take his own life. And if he did, when did he change his mind? Finally, if the outcome of the race had gone as planned, what ramification would it have had on the turn of political events that occur during the race?
This is not a novel as much about terrorism as it is about the Middle East. From what I gather, Berberian completed the manuscript more than a year prior to the 9-11 events. As Americans most of us had not paid close attention to the strife in the Middle East, however, it has gone on for a long time and has increased in intensity. As the cyclist explains, "There was a time when our neighbors paid a premium for our glorious fruits, but somewhere along the way, the terms of trade moved against us, and the world became more interested in the terror we produced." The Cyclist is about a region where the inhabitants eat common food, but as Leng admonishes the cyclist, they do have "certain foods with conflicting claims. Falafel is one. But until the day when it's possible to resolve this dispute in a way that will satisfy the majority of the people on both sides, our culinary tradition must not be compromised. If it worked for your parents, it will work for you. Chew what you know." Meanwhile, one can only hope that the latest peace talks will put the current cycle of violence to an end.
- Amazon readers rating: from 26 reviews
Read an excerpt from The Cyclist at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Map of the Middle East (in .pdf)
- The origins of the B 018 nightclub
- BookReporter.com review of The Cyclist
- MostlyFiction.com review of Das Kapital
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About the Author:
Viken Berberian formerly worked at an investment firm researching New York Stock Exchange-traded companies. In 2000 he received a grant from the Arpa Foundation for Film Music and Art (AFFMA). He is now a novelist and has also written for The New York Times, the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. For the past five years he has lived and worked in Manhattan, Paris and Marseille.