By Viken Berberian
Simon and Schuster, $21,189 pages
Bicycle road racing is both a heady and physically demanding sport, as anyone who has worked their feet and legs pedaling a multi-geared bike for hours on end can tell you. The race in Viken Berberian's arty, tantalizing little novel is from Lebanon's "Mount Barouk to Beirut: a 71-kilometer calamitous road with a stretch of cedar trees on one side and flustered sheep on the other."
What is "tantalizing" about "The Cyclist" is that it isn't so much about bicycling as about present-day terrorism. Mr. Berberian, who lives in New York and works in the financial markets, began his novel way before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon here in Washington, but his exploration into the mind of his protagonist an apprentice terrorist learning his trade, as it were is a witty tease from the book's beginning to its end.
On the face of it, Mr. Berberian's attitude to his horrific theme may sound odd, even shameful, but it's not. It is, rather, deeply humane and complex in the way that a so-called "poetic" novel of the 1920s, say, Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" differs from a "social" novel by E.M. Forster (pick whichever Forster book you please). Mr. Berberian is not in either of those writers' league yet, but he has the poetic touch, he writes in a pleasing style and his characters' motives are effectively mixed between the private and public spheres of life. These people's impulses and appetites oscillate between negative and positive in affecting ways, as one would expect of most ordinary people in wartime. You do not find any Mohammed Atta here.
This is a story of the Middle East. The apprentice terrorist at the heart of things is of mixed background, part Arab (Druze) and Jewish on his mother's side, having grown up in Galilee. His father is an art professor, so of the privileged class, and the young man has studied in Europe. The catastrophe to which he and his fellow commandos (called Academics) intend to respond is an attack on a village, the ethnic nature of its population not made clear:
"Do you remember the blast, the roster of revulsion? Twenty-seven corpses of various firmness and form: twelve dismembered limbs, four charred feet (two under the age of seven), five mutilated hands (three with rings wrapped around them) splattered across the village souk. The headlines blared: a country's tragedy. And so we must now take a stand. Onward to Summerland."
One almost hesitates to quote such prose, but such is the present actual plight of people in the Middle East as reported in every day's news, whether they be Muslim, Jew or Christian. Like the young people in the novel, they do not know whether they will be alive tomorrow. The "Summerland" referred to in the quote is a five-star resort hotel on the Beirut coast, which the protagonist and his comrades have been planning for seven months to explode along with all the people, including women and children, in it. A reference to "collateral damage" brings Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing to mind.
The Cyclist of the title has been assigned, after terrorist training in London (if you please) to appear to participate in the upcoming bicycle race, but fall behind the other riders and detour to the Summerland, where the bomb he is carrying in his backpack, the "baby," will be handed off to a confederate, Leng, for detonation. But as I mentioned earlier, Mr. Berberian's plot is more complex, more comic and poetic than that.
The Cyclist is a fleshly young man of strong appetites. He is in the first place an overeater and obese. His British training consisted of turning him into a plausible road-racer on his bike. But this is a man who really loves food, and his thoughts in the novel's pages dwell even more on delicious Lebanese and other Middle Eastern dishes and breads and teas than on his terrorist's work. He is Gilbert and Sullivan in this regard. He thinks in terms of "garlic-belt European cities," and even when waxing ideological, he writes of globalist incursions into the Levant in terms of apricots:
"The next day I crossed over to the other side of the village, and Ghaemi's parents offered me an apricot. . . . should I be more alarmed that the orchards in our village are fast disappearing and there seems to be a fruit blockade in place? Or that more than three quarters of the world's apricot output now comes from the United States? . . . somewhere along the way the terms of trade moved against us, and the world became more interested in the terror that we produced."
Ghaemi Baswami is the Cyclist's longtime girlfriend, whom he met when they were children. She is the one other rounded character in the novel and so more interesting than Leng and Sadji, the protagonist's chief and "Designer of Deception." Ghaemi is a terrorist herself, in fact she is the one who calculated the force of the bomb required to destroy the Summerland hotel, which is to be picked up in a mountain cave and ridden down the mountain terrain.
On the other hand and this really is the other hand as the tale plays out Ghaemi is a lover. Mr. Berberian's story relies heavily on puns. The "Cyclist" of the title plays on the cycle of violence that pervades Middle Eastern life with no apparent hope of remedy (one encounters recollections of the Lebanese civil war in the book's pages). The bomb, as already noted, is called the "baby," and the planned bombing is code-named the "shower-party." To say more would be to give away too much of the plot.
The novel's food talk is great fun, and aside from vicariously joining in the meals, tied to the terrorism part of the story are code words, "potatoes" for grenades, "peppers" for pistols, "sugar" for TNT. The Cyclist's love affair with his Ghaemi warms the heart throughout: "To smell her was to know the world."
This is an odd little book, different. Mr. Berberian takes his epigraphs from Michel Foucault's book about punishment and prisons and from a poem about bombing victims by Yehuda Amichai, the latter seeming to me more empathetic to the novel's theme. Perhaps I know the Foucault too well to make the transition comfortably. At any rate, despite its comparative brevity, "The Cyclist" is not a quick read, if only because the narrative doubles back on itself so much as it does, somewhat in the manner of the French nouveau roman a half-century ago.
But one does get to see the fledgling terrorist mind developing, and at the present historical moment that alone makes Mr. Berberian's novel worth the read. One of the book's most arresting reminders is of how close tradition and technology have become in the troubles plaguing the Middle East and Central Asia, not to mention overlapping into Western Europe and recently and tragically the United States.
And again, without giving too much away, Mr. Berberian's story has its heartwarming side. How germane, or appropriate that is to the terror confronting us at the present time readers will have to decide for themselves. I thought the novelist brought a lot of imagination into play and trust that he is still on the job, continuing to try his novelist's hand between the Wall Street market's opening and closings.