A rocky read

The Rock of Tanios

by Amin Maalouf

Returning from a trip to Lebanon, I wanted to check out some famous Lebanese literature, so I bought this Maalouf book. Although he lives in Paris, Maalouf is regarded as one of Lebanon’s finest and most greatly respected writers.

After reading The Rock of Tanios, I can see why. It didn’t set me alight but it is well written and a good book from the ‘national literature’ genre. The novel tells the epic story of Tanios, from his dubious conception through tricky adolescence, exile and triumphant return. It is a classic tale of tyranny, politics, family affairs and coming-of-age. The problem is that it feels like a classic tale. While that secures Maalouf’s place as one of Lebanon’s great storytellers, it doesn’t necessarily make for great stories. It means that he is, in this novel at least, limited to a formulaic tale of his land. To some extent, every country has to have one or two such writers (Egypt has Mahfouz, Kenya has Ngugi, etc). But it takes a real great to punch above the weight of his station – Ngugi is one such writer; Maalouf is not. Or at least it is not in evidence here.

Nevertheless, The Rock of Tanios has plenty of action and some wonderful characterisation to make for an entertaining read. It’s just not the great book Lebanon deserves.

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