When I was in New York last week for sales calls and publicity meetings (which is why the blog has been so slow . . . But I’m back! And excited about life, the BTBAs, books, and everything, so expect an onslaught of material for the next few days . . . ), everyone was all abuzz about the fact that the New Yorker ran an enormous article on Arabic literature in translation. (Of course, they also used the ages-old “Found/Lost in Translation” title for which there NEEDS TO BE A MORATORIUM, but so be it.)
Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote this piece, which is basically a run down of recently published works of Arab literature. She doesn’t mention The Zafarani Files, which is a personal favorite and is on the BTBA longlist, but the titles she cites all sound rather interesting. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but in shorthand, blog-world fashion, here’s a rundown of the titles covered, with short quotes and links to buy the books at Idlewild:
For all the horror it details, this is a startlingly warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafkaesque—Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with García Márquez—but maintains a specificity of place and history (this happened in Basra, that happened in Mosul) and of the individuals who inhabit them. Set mostly in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq War, in the late nineteen-seventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basra schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for “a simple interrogation.” His subsequent experience in six levels of hell—six prisons in all—is exactingly described, but the long ordeal is mitigated, both for him and for the reader, by a dose of bitter humor, a share of personal good will, and the mutual trust that he discovers among the prisoners, a trust long since forfeited in the larger prison of the informer-ridden society outside.
The title refers to the practice of adding dots—diacritical marks—to various letters of the Arabic alphabet, some of which are indistinguishable without these marks in place. An undotted sequence of letters may signify a number of different words; the correct translation can be determined only by context. The story’s intriguing premise is that a handwritten, undotted manuscript has been found in a file in Baghdad’s Interior Ministry, and a functionary assigned to add the necessary dots and make a transcription: the resulting manuscript forms the body of the book. The text turns out to be the work of a university student whose gift for political mockery got him sent to prison, where he wrote the manuscript—leaving out the dots to avoid further incrimination. Its uncertain readings cause the scribe to offer footnotes to such perplexing references as “the Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation” (“Could this be the Ministry of Culture and Information?”) and to such obvious errors as occur in the well-known song lyric that details how the nation’s leader moves from house to house and “fucks us into bed.” (“Note: the original lyrics read ‘tucks.’ ”)
“Men in the Sun” is, on the simplest level, a gripping tale that unfolds with Hitchcockian suspense as the reader is reduced to fearfully counting the minutes on the smuggler’s wristwatch. The prose is lean, swift, and—in Hilary Kilpatrick’s translation—filled with phrases of startling rightness: “The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin”; or, even better, “The speedometer leapt forward like a white dog tied to a tent peg.” The realistic intensity of Kanafani’s world tends to conceal his stylistic ambitions: the intricacy with which he weaves together past and present, fact and delusion, and the alternating voices of his characters, each of whom is drawn with the rapid assurance of a charcoal sketch. But on a deeper level Kanafani’s work is about the desperation that drove these men to such lengths to regain work and dignity; it is about the longing—just emerging in the Palestinian public voice—for the moist earth and the olive trees of the villages left behind in 1948. Most painfully, it is about the awakening of self-recrimination for acquiescence in the loss, as in the thoughts of an old man who has been living “like a beggar” and decides to risk the journey.
A tremendously ambitious work, covering half a century of Palestinian history, it begins with maps of the region dotted with the names of old Palestinian villages, the way big Russian novels begin with family trees: here, through all the narrative advance and obliteration, is what you must keep steady in your mind. Set in a dilapidated hospital in the Shatila refugee camp, in Beirut, in the mid-nineties, the book’s many winding stories are told by a male Scheherazade, a fortyish Palestinian medic whose unceasing talk is intended to rouse a comatose old man, a resistance hero who spent decades sneaking over the Lebanese border into Israel, to carry out attacks that earned him the title the Wolf of Galilee. We do not see much of the attacks; instead, we see the warrior as a lover—not as the Wolf but simply as a man—paying secret visits to his wife, left behind on what has become Israeli land. As a result of these conjugal visits, the hero plants his children in Galilee, before going away again to fight to liberate them.
So great to see a piece like this. Getting info about any international lit in translation can be hard, but finding out about Arabic literature tends to be especially tricky. Hopefully I can write a lot more about the Arab publishing scene—and interesting untranslated titles—next month during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair . . .
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