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Why This Book Should Win: Leg Over Leg Vol. 1, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated by Humphrey Davies

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

Why should Humphrey Davies’ translation of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq Leg Over Leg (Vol. 1) win this year’s Best Translated Book Award? Well, simply put: because it is awesome.

Let’s begin with the full title: Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be otherwise entitled Days, Months, and Years spent in Critical Examination of The Arabs and Their Non-Arab Peers. Which is already pretty awesome (and, let’s face it, a bit more intriguing than Textile, Commentary, or Tirza…).

Mind you, a lot of books on the longlist impress, in a variety of ways. There are some truly great pieces of literature, great translations, great books among them, works that we’ll be talking about and reading for years to come. And yet even in this lofty company, Leg Over Leg is a standout.

Given that eight of the twenty-five authors with works on the longlist are deceased, Leg Over Leg is hardly the only belatedly-brought-into English work – but, originally published in Arabic in 1855, it is the oldest book in the running. In purely literary-historical terms, it’s probably also safe to say that it’s the most significant. As Rebecca C. Johnson writes in her foreword, this work is: “acknowledged as one of the most distinguished works of the nineteenth century and an inaugural text of Arabic modernity”. In that case: What took so long? you might wonder. (I did, but I wonder that about a lot of books….) Well, there hasn’t been much more than a drip of translation of Arabic literature into English over the decades – increasing now to perhaps a trickle – and Leg Over Leg doesn’t fit with the general conceptions most publishers and readers might have of Arabic fiction.

That’s already one reason why this book should win the BTBA: it blows our (pre-)conceptions of Arabic literature out of the water. It certainly did mine. Sure, I’ve made my way through Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, and a variety of the translations of Arabic novels from the past decades, but I never managed to get much of a sense of anything earlier than, say, Tawfiq al-Hakim. Sure, there’s always the Arabian Nights, but that stands so distant and apart from everything else that it feels entirely separate. Arabic fiction – in translation – always seemed to be twentieth (generally later- twentieth) and twenty-first century fiction, much of it strongly shaped by so-called Western influences. And then I pick this up and get an electrifying jolt, finding a mid-nineteenth century literary work that is as radical and inventive as any modern novel. I thought I had a decent sense of modern Arabic literature, and suddenly I found myself exposed to a whole new layer underlying it all, throwing a whole new light on all of it.

Before I read Leg Over Leg I would have suspected any nineteenth-century work of Arabic fiction to be…well, let’s be honest: kind of conservative and stale. But Leg Over Leg turns out to probably be the most exuberant and formally inventive text on the entire BTBA longlist.

Leg Over Leg is an autobiographical novel, centered on the life of the author’s alter ego, ‘the Fāriyāq’. An eighty-chapter work, it is divided into four books – and it is the first of these that is BTBA-longlisted; Leg Over Leg is, remarkably, one of four multi-volume works of which an individual volume has been longlisted this year (the others being the books by Cărtărescu, Ferrante, and Knausgaard). Even though volumes three and four of Leg Over Leg will only be published later this year, the first volume stands up superbly on its own. While the young Fāriyāq’s life-story is the framework for the narrative, al-Shidyaq feels entirely comfortable taking it completely off the rails at times, too. There are stories within the stories here, and metafictional games. Above all, the text engages with language, in everything from its use of rhyme and poetry to dictionary-like lists and glossaries. Throughout, al-Shidyaq revels in the possibilities of language and expression. And ‘ribald’ doesn’t do justice to the extensive sexual-(word)play found here (yes, Leg Over Leg is definitely not conservative).

The BTBA is a translation prize, and so we naturally focus on the quality of the translation, too. And here we have yet another reason why Leg Over Leg should win: Humphrey Davies’ translation is a stunner. No doubt, one reason why Leg Over Leg hasn’t been translated previously is because it can seem untranslatable. There is a lot of wordplay here, from the use of rhymes within passages to what amount to lists of word-definitions – and even beyond that, the multifaceted text is daunting. Every text brings with it translation-challenges, but few of the longlisted titles presented anywhere near as many as this one does – and yet Davies handled them exceptionally well. The reader gets a sense of much of what al-Shidyaq is trying to do, and especially what he is trying to say and demonstrate about language; equally importantly, the humor – and there’s a lot of it – comes across: in English, too, Leg Over Leg is a very funny book.

One of the amazing things about this year’s BTBA longlist is that the 25 titles were published by 23 different publishers. There are many who specialize in literature in translation, and it’s always nice to see them get some recognition – and it’s nice to see the publishers of Leg Over Leg get the recognition too: by itself it’s not really good enough a reason why this book should win the BTBA, but it doesn’t hurt. Leg Over Leg is one of the first volumes in NYU Press’ new Library of Arabic Literature, devoted to publishing: “key works of classical and premodern Arabic literature”. Many of the BTBA-longlisted publishers also have admirable missions, but there’s no doubt that this is a worthy, important, and long overdue one.

Yet one more reason why this book should win is how the Library of Arabic Literature-volumes are published: in bilingual editions. Quite a few of the BTBA poetry contenders are usually bilingual editions, but bilingual fiction titles are a rarity. Admittedly, most of us (including me) can’t make or do much with the Arabic text facing the English on each page, but aside from aesthetic appreciation I think it does give a better sense of the text as a whole. In particular, one can at least get a sense of some of the repetition, as well as the original presentation of the text; given its complexities, any additional clues are welcome.

Finally, yet another reason why this book should win the BTBA is because it deserves the attention. Even though this book was published many months ago it has barely received any notice. Possibly the ‘serious’ periodicals like the Times Literary Supplement are waiting for the full four-volume set to be available before they tackle it, possibly it sits uneasily between ‘scholarly’ (it looks so serious in it’s plain cover; there are thirty pages of endnotes; it’s from a university press; it’s bilingual) and popular (it should be popular!), but it’s still astonishing and baffling that a publication of this significance, and of a book that’s just plain this good, hasn’t received the glowing attention it deserves. (I do note, however, that several of the BTBA longlisted books have received minimal review attention – notably Commentary, Red Grass, and Sleet.)

So look: it’s hard not think of Leg Over Leg as the most important translation in the running for the BTBA. It’s an amazing work of literature. It’s an incredible translation. It’s a beautiful edition (bilingual, helpfully annotated). And it’s just a whole lot of fun to read. So I’m not so much wondering why it should win the BTBA as: how can it not?

See also my review of Leg Over Leg, as well as interviews with translator Humphrey Davies by Sal Robinson at Moby Lives (An “absquiliferous” interview with Humphrey Davies, Arabic translator) and M.Lynx Qualey at Arabic Literature (in English) (Humphrey Davies on Climbing Translation’s Mt. Everest).

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