As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei, translated by Katy Derbyshire
Publisher: Seagull Books
Why This Book Should Win: Seagull produces some damn beautiful books.
Today’s post is by Hilary Plum, an editor with Interlink Publishing and co-director of Clockroot Books. Her novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets is forthcoming from FC2.
Hell and Dunkel (in German: Light and Dark) are two squatters in Berlin, young or youngish women, the only remaining residents in their wing of a “formerly elegant Jewish apartment house.” At the opening of The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Hell’s monotonous daily life is disturbed: Dunkel has disappeared. Hell sets out on a search for her missing neighbor, not out of friendship—she and Dunkel rarely speak—or even any real sense of morality, but some other more visceral drive, one which leads her and the novel through a dark picaresque in ’90s, post-Wall Berlin. Her tone deceptively flat, Parei offers an unsettlingly intimate evocation of the city. In her portrayal Berlin is both sinisterly populated and desolate, everywhere its surfaces defaced and indistinguishable from the prevailing refuse and excrement, a place in a state of ruin and troubled growth, continual becoming and decay (as the Eastern philosophy the novel toys with might put it).
“I can’t imagine a greater contrast than between Dunkel’s apartment and mine. At least bearing in mind that the layouts are exactly the same, mirrored across the axis of the stairwell,” Hell tells us, and maybe you’re starting to sense what this uncanny, masterfully structured novel is up to. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a political fable in contemporary motifs: never simple allegory, but through the story of these two women offering a profound commentary on existence in fractured and then reunited Berlin. Hell is joined on her search for Dunkel by Markus März, some kind of old consort of Dunkel’s, who has come from the suburbs in search of a father long lost to him in Germany’s division. März is a bank robber of sorts (the novel’s understatement and ambiguity make an “of sorts” always in order as one describes it), and his and Hell’s hunt for Dunkel echoes the forms of both a crime novel and a classic tale of the Wild West, two outlaws teamed up on a near-hopeless quest. Interspersed with this plotline is a series of scenes from Hell’s past, just as the Wall is coming down, when she suffered some monstrous incident of violence; in response she has turned to martial arts, as well as developing, it seems, the relentlessly precise awareness that pervades the novel, the extraordinary eye for detail that is both hypnotic and suffocating. Hell deploys her martial arts skills several times in the novel’s course, with a casual brutality befitting any cowboy; but in time specters will return to haunt her, and us.
Parei sets all this up playfully, with a wicked humor that will have you grinning at lines—which makes the poignant moments that radiate briefly from this dark landscape all the more moving. “We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit“ is the old line by Feyerabend that often returns to me, especially when confronting a dream world as deftly made as this one, feeling so real to the senses and suffused with a wisdom that can’t be easily distilled. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is marvelously made, strange and commanding, its deep political insight resonating perfectly from within the novel’s architecture. How nice to give such a subtly constructed work the grand applause of a big award—so give this novel the BTBA!
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
Click here for all past and future posts.
Touch by Adania Shibli, translated by Paula Haydar
Why This Book Should Win: Only book translated from the Arabic on the list; Clockroot Books deserves more attention and praise; she is “The Most-Talked-About Writer on the West Bank.”
Today we finally get another publisher involved, as Hilary Plum of Clockroot wrote this post.
In 2008 when Pam and I were starting Clockroot—a new imprint of Interlink Publishing for literature in translation—we readied ourselves for questions such as: how do you decide what translations to publish? What works to translate? I don’t know if we expected anyone out in the world to ask us this, or whether we were really asking ourselves. In any case, we had our answer prepared, having stolen it from Adania Shibli, who when asked by the Guardian what Arabic writers should be translated into English replied:
I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn’t know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.
In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.
It’s the better story to say that on reading this we decided that the texts we should translate should be Adania Shibli’s. In some way this must be true—we signed on both of Adania’s novels without being able to either in full, relying on tantalizing pieces that had been published in translation in magazines, and a stunning essay translated and introduced by Anton Shammas in the 2007 Words Without Borders anthology.
As publishers, we have to do what we can for our books, let our hands get dirtied in “the market,” or maybe we should just call it the world. A few years ago Ahdaf Soueif wrote an article in which she hailed Adania as “the most talked-about writer in the West Bank”—a phrase we of course used in publicity, and which several reviews noted as ultimately maybe regrettable hype. Of course it’s hype, we replied, but we would like people to read her books—actually, of course, we didn’t reply, how could we? Which is no doubt why I am doing so here. The point is, on behalf of our authors sometimes we must deny ourselves the freedom and rigor of expression that we value in our authors. (In a recent interview, when asked “Do you feel that you represent the new generation of Palestinian authors?” Adania answered, “No. (In fact I hardly represent myself and most often fail to do so.)” and proceeded to discuss exile in the internet age, the late work of Darwish, Palestinian literature as “the literature of the last breath that never ends.”)
All publishers know: when the world calls for hype, you hype. But how do we get the taste of all this hype out of our mouths, how do we get to talk again about literature, about falling in love? And—because, after all, our own feelings should not be that important—how do we shield our writers from all this hype, all this world? How do we hold a space open for Adania and her writing in English translation, under the weight of such labels as “the new generation of Palestinian writers,” a “Palestinian woman writer” (picture here all the tired stereotypes of “Muslim women speaking out,” that sort of thing—these will be lingering in the shadows, in the US of 2011 we can’t be free of them, they’re there). Let’s try to answer all these questions at once, for Touch. Because the answer isn’t so hard—_Touch_ holds open its own space, and luminously:
Everyone managed to find black outfits to wear, except the little girl. The search for a black outfit for her, followed by an attempt to improvise one, nearly made the family forget their grief, so it was decided that this task should be left to her.
The closet door was always half open, because no one fixed it or showed any interest in fixing it.
The girl removed all the clothes from the closet and placed them in the small space between the closet on one side and the beds on the other. The pile of clothes remained multicolored, despite what the constantly angry art teacher said, that all colors mixed together would make white.
A pair of dark blue velvet pants and a wool sweater that had in addition to the dark blue other little colors won the almost-black outfit contest. After she put them on, she found a hole in the pants near the left knee.
On the way to the mosque, she bought a bottle of cola with a red ribbon on it. The liquid inside it was black, or closer to black than to any other color around her. She continued on her way, holding the bottle in her right hand and hiding the hole in her pants with her left.
She was the last to arrive at the square of the mosque. When she got there, she found that the mother had fainted and had been taken to an ambulance parked out back, so she headed in that direction.
The back door of the ambulance was open, but she could not get to it, because a huge crowd of women in black created an immense wall between her and the door. She could not even get a glimpse of the mother’s shoes. As the crowd of women in black got bigger and bigger, she, in her dark blue clothes, got pushed further and further back, unable to resist. Her right hand was holding the bottle and her left was covering the hole. She could not remove her hand, or everyone would see the hole.
The pushing became harder and harsher, and each time it would force her hand away from the hole, so she would press on it harder and harder, using all her strength, including that in her right hand. That hand now had weakened its hold on the bottle, and a little black liquid leaked out with each step she was pushed backward.
At the end of the square, the wall of the mosque rose behind the girl, keeping her from getting pushed back any further. She stood there looking toward the ambulance, which had no white left, after the black drape of women wrapped it. But above, on top of the ambulance, the red light kept spinning inside itself, not veiled by anything, switching regularly from dark red to light red. She waited for its regular return to dark red, so that it would look like the red label on the empty bottle in her hand.
Translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar
In years of reading literature in translation, of reading Arabic fiction—really just in years of reading—Pam and I had never read anything quite like Touch. Its spare, idiosyncratic beauty, the slow pace of the girl’s encounter with the world, so slow as to be merciless, to break your heart, but no, you must go on steadily, as she does. When I think of the novel, I don’t remember particular phrases so much as a feeling, something like: the side of a fist rubbing away the breath fogged within a car windshield—outside, it’s just night. Can I say that this is a book like that? And then add that, also, it’s not—if as publishers we can only offer so much, it’s nice to remember that at least we’ve offered each book the chance to go out and speak for itself.
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