Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
With The Cyclist, Viken Berberian has created a disturbing, brilliant novel: the story of a terrorist with a gourmet's palate and a mission to use a bicycle race in Lebanon as a ruse for an insidious, international bombing conspiracy. Our nameless protagonist, the eponymous "cyclist," shares with readers his obsession with Yemeni chicken soup, his allegiance to the mysterious "Academy" -- a terrorist organization dedicated to an unspecified cause -- and his love for an attractive co-conspirator, Ghaemi. But what he most tantalizingly refuses to divulge is why he must deliver "the baby" to the Summerland Hotel -- and whether or not he's actually going to go through with his absurd mission.
Berberian's antihero meditates inventively not on international politics but on the inexhaustible pleasures of a well-prepared meal. The members of his terrorist cell oblige his fixation, using "potatoes" and "peppers" as code words for weapons. And when he lands in the hospital after a training accident, his compatriots bring him lentil stew, in hope that the aroma will provide him the strength to continue.
Berberian's whimsical and engaging narrator is a Nabokovian figure transplanted to 21st-century Beirut: easy to love but not completely trustworthy. And as the cyclist takes the explosive "baby" in hand for the climactic race, there's no telling whom he's going to betray. In crafting this ornate and mesmerizing puzzler, Berberian offers up great reading pleasure wrapped in a disconcerting package. Readers may come for the exotic meal, but it's the fascinating host who won't soon be forgotten.
(Spring 2002 Selection)
In his stunning debut novel, The Cyclist, Viken Berberian dishes up an
absurd yet appealing recipe. He blends a Middle Eastern terrorist's
first-person account of his mission to make a deadly delivery with a
careful chronicle of the young man's emotional vacillations. The yield
is a surreal odyssey. Throughout, Berberian heaps on profound and
frequently witty insight into often unexplored territory: the humane
terrain of a terrorist's mind.
In a year that has seen no shortage of ambitious first novels, Berberian
rises to the top as a bold and skillful writer. The images are thick as
tahini, and the implications as layered as baklava. It's a tantalizing
trip for the senses that also challenges the sensibilities.
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.
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. 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.
Los Angeles Times
It's impossible to know whether Berberian has penetrated the terrorist
mind or if he's concocted a rich, feast-like fantasy; either way, The
Cyclist provokes both horror and sympathy as it examines the Middle
East's never-ending cycle of violent retribution.
A nameless terrorist narrator begins this first novel from his hospital bed, offering us only his "fractured mind: an imperfect mosaic of memory and mishap." Berberian's repetition of passages reflects the structure of the story: it is like the tires of a bicycle with the same worn spots rolling across different ground and spinning through different rhythms. We ride along with the character as he makes his final, essential decision. Although the narrative is especially shaky at the start, threatening to unseat the reader, it finishes with a burst of power. Some of the similes also feel forced, and the cryptic narrative occasionally frustrates. Finally, however, this is a story about a character who is as irresistible as the figs and pomegranate juice that he describes in such delectable detail. Eloquent passages easily propel the reader through the opening trouble spots. Recommended for all fiction collections. Lyle D. Rosdahl, San Antonio P.L., TX Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Food, terrorism, and cycling are the main ingredients in this vivid debut novel set somewhere in the Middle East. As the unnamed narrator is recovering from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident, he reveals how he has come to this point in his young life, and what he still must do. Having been recruited into a terrorist organization called the "Academy," he has spent the past several months training for a deadly mission. Using an upcoming bike race as cover, the narrator is to ride to a local luxury hotel and deliver a bomb, which will take hundreds of innocent lives. Using the rich and exotic foods of the Middle East as metaphors for everything from sex to hand grenades to dismembered bodies, Berberian highlights the dichotomy of this troubled land at once both steeped in culture and simmering with violence. The complexity of the protagonist's personality is at times troubling; he can speak with such passion and longing for a plate of baba ghannooj or a ripe pomegranate, yet with only coldness and detachment when describing the violence and death he is soon to rain down on the unsuspecting. This book is sure to be a topic for conversation and debate.-James O. Cahill, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The thoughts of a nameless, bicycle-borne, Beiruti bomber reel off in the days leading to the destruction of a packed hotel. First-novelist Berberian, a New Yorker, has somehow-the somehow is actually highly skilled writing-managed to create a believable world in the mind of a young man about to end the lives of hundreds of innocents in what can no longer be called an unbelievable act. Berberian's anonymous narrator is a young half-Druse (remember them from the Lebanese catastrophe?) lying in a hospital in Beirut, recovering from injuries sustained when his bicycle met a Mercedes. He had been on the road putting in training miles for a dual mission. In love with cycling since his youth, he will enter the upcoming race that drops participants from the heights of the Lebanese to the Beirut seafront. But he is not to finish. The plan under which he will be cycling, a plot dreamed up by terrorists who call themselves The Attorneys, calls for him to drop back and eventually drop out of the race, steering up to the Summerland, a big resort hotel, where he will deliver "the baby" for detonation to a fuse-equipped coconspirator in the hotel kitchen. But first he has to recover from his ghastly and paralyzing head injuries. The recovery is complicated and speeded by the visits of relatives and friends who ply him with some of the many foods that distinguish the book, poking figs into his mouth and slipping purees into his tubes. There are also therapeutic visits from his girlfriend Ghaemi, whom he has known from childhood and who lived through, and was radicalized by, the same terrorist act that set the cyclist on his present course. Deeply creepy and funny and perfectly timed.
Read an Excerpt
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. Bynoontime, 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.
Copyright © 2002 by Viken Berberian
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