17 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Two, on Bensalem Himmich’s A Muslim Suicide, which is translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen and is available from Syracuse University Press.

Here is part of her review:

It is a well-known phenomenon that widespread condemnation of a book will only serve to increase its allure. It then follows that when Ibn Khaldun (a Fourteenth Century historian) attempted to ban Escape of the Gnostic, he may have been doing the text a favor. In a legal opinion, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the decision regarding such works and their ilk should involve taking all copies and putting them in the fire, then washing one’s hands so that all traces of their contents are erased.” The author of the clearly controversial Escape of the Gnostic, Ibn Sab‘in, is the narrator and focus of Bensalem Himmich’s novel, A Muslim Suicide (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen). Born in Andalusia during the Reconquista, Ibn Sab‘in practiced Sufism, a mystic dimension of Islam that encouraged self-examination as a means to spiritual enlightenment. A firm proponent of separating religion from the state, he also cautioned against the growing trend of fanaticism in the Arab world. In his day, Ibn Sab‘in’s beliefs were scandalous enough that he was forced to flee first his birthplace, and then his adopted home of Maghrib. He eventually made his way to Mecca, where he supposedly slit his wrists and bled to death in the sacred Ka‘ba. This provocative death inspired Roger Allen’s title for the English translation, a choice that he justifies in his afterword. Though the original Arabic title translates to “This Andalusian,” Bensalem Himmich initially wished to call it “Suicide Inside the Ka‘ba” and requested that the Allen restore some of the controversy.

The novel opens with a lament: “Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams.” Indeed, Ibn Sab‘in’s tale is held together by his yearning for the loss of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the loss of his beloved philosophical manuscript, and the loss of “spiritual nourishment” in the Arab world. In the first third of the novel, the missing manuscript is felt most acutely, and Ibn Sab‘in copes with his grief by seeking out sex. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given that he is characterized as a devout Muslim. Still, it is consistent with his character as he makes it clear that though he is religious, he feels no obligation to live the life of an ascetic. As a partial explanation of his promiscuity, he observes that the deterioration of the Spanish state has inspired sexual boldness in its women, even those of faiths that promote chastity. As a result, Ibn Sab‘in encounters Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and polytheist women who color his life with both sexual intercourse and religious discourse.

Click here to read the entire review.

17 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

It is a well-known phenomenon that widespread condemnation of a book will only serve to increase its allure. It then follows that when Ibn Khaldun (a Fourteenth Century historian) attempted to ban Escape of the Gnostic, he may have been doing the text a favor. In a legal opinion, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the decision regarding such works and their ilk should involve taking all copies and putting them in the fire, then washing one’s hands so that all traces of their contents are erased.” The author of the clearly controversial Escape of the Gnostic, Ibn Sab‘in, is the narrator and focus of Bensalem Himmich’s novel, A Muslim Suicide (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen). Born in Andalusia during the Reconquista, Ibn Sab‘in practiced Sufism, a mystic dimension of Islam that encouraged self-examination as a means to spiritual enlightenment. A firm proponent of separating religion from the state, he also cautioned against the growing trend of fanaticism in the Arab world. In his day, Ibn Sab‘in’s beliefs were scandalous enough that he was forced to flee first his birthplace, and then his adopted home of Maghrib. He eventually made his way to Mecca, where he supposedly slit his wrists and bled to death in the sacred Ka‘ba. This provocative death inspired Roger Allen’s title for the English translation, a choice that he justifies in his afterword. Though the original Arabic title translates to “This Andalusian,” Bensalem Himmich initially wished to call it “Suicide Inside the Ka‘ba” and requested that the Allen restore some of the controversy.

The novel opens with a lament: “Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams.” Indeed, Ibn Sab‘in’s tale is held together by his yearning for the loss of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the loss of his beloved philosophical manuscript, and the loss of “spiritual nourishment” in the Arab world. In the first third of the novel, the missing manuscript is felt most acutely, and Ibn Sab‘in copes with his grief by seeking out sex. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given that he is characterized as a devout Muslim. Still, it is consistent with his character as he makes it clear that though he is religious, he feels no obligation to live the life of an ascetic. As a partial explanation of his promiscuity, he observes that the deterioration of the Spanish state has inspired sexual boldness in its women, even those of faiths that promote chastity. As a result, Ibn Sab‘in encounters Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and polytheist women who color his life with both sexual intercourse and religious discourse.

The novel takes a turn toward adventure when local officials (among them, his brother) threaten to imprison Ibn Sab‘in and his followers if he does not leave Spain. Intimidated by his unorthodox religious beliefs and vocal criticism of concessions to Christian Spain, they escort Ibn Sab‘in to Maghrib (modern day Morocco). Thus begins a long series of hasty flights and days spent hiding from government thugs. In Maghrib, however, he finds some respite and meets his wife, a wealthy widow who surpasses all his previous lovers in beauty and faith. In her loving household, Ibn Sab‘in writes his most famous work, Escape of the Gnostic:

bq For me the word escape [budd] implies a number of notions: a line of poetry, the fulcrum of a millstone, a firm principle, or you might even say that it and its synonyms all blend together to produce a single meaning, namely the loftiest ideal… the only path toward it involves uncovering its signs and secrets in the persona of an ever-striving humanity. Whoever knows himself knows his Lord, as the prophet hadith puts it. The “gnostic” of my title is one who realizes that adjuncts and additions are mere coincidentals, or rather fantasies. Time consists of periods and moments; place mere sectors and partialities; and all of them collapse into something inferior to both unity and genuine cognizance.

It is passages like this one that make A Muslim Suicide remarkable and characterize it as a work of fiction rather than a biography. Himmich manages to distill the essence of Ibn Sab‘in’s philosophy and imagine how it could have been produced by a living, breathing man.

Part of Bensalem Himmich’s success in this ambitious endeavor must be attributed to the fact that he himself is a philosopher. Full of allusions to scholars and political figures that influenced Ibn Sab‘in, this book represents not just his life but the intellectual climate of Sab‘in’s day. Himmich manages to strike a balance between making the novel accessible and upholding the complexity of thought and rhetoric one would expect of a narrator noted in the field of philosophy. I am reminded of the choice that translators make between bringing the source text closer to the reader and bringing the reader closer to the source text. In the process of translating the language and culture of Ibn Sab‘in’s era for a contemporary audience, Himmich chose to bring the reader closer to the source. This choice is appropriately reflected by Roger Allen’s translation into English. Unfamiliar as I am with Muslim Philosophy, I appreciated the addition of a glossary to provide background information.

A Muslim Suicide requires attentive reading, but it rewards with moments of ecstatic, poetic prose. In one of my favorite passages, Ibn Sab‘in addresses his followers:

I refuse to countenance the slightest degree of shirking or contempt. The reason is that the only genuine sense of relief I feel involves resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person and combatting those symmetries whose outmoded tyranny I can measure within the framework of ever-ascending and existential essentials of life. Beyond all that, my overriding task and indeed the very essence of my being involves turning my life into an incredible work of art, albeit incomplete – needless to say.

The notion of “resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person” encapsulates Ibn Sab‘in’s internal struggles throughout the book. From fighting the urge to give into the void he feels upon losing his manuscript, to working against the spread of Christian Spain, to running from murderous fanatics, to praying for unity with God in his final moments of fever-wrecked life, Ibn Sab‘in seeks always to combat that which would pull him into a forgettable, faithless existence. And that, needless to say, is life turned into art and a life worthy of a reader’s attention.

26 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Admittedly, books from university presses are under-represented on this year’s Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, a situation that will hopefully change next year.

But for now, I thought that before announcing the finalists for fiction and poetry (and yes, I do know what they are, but that post won’t go live until tomorrow morning . . .), I’d take a moment to highlight some of the more interesting university presses and the translations they published this year.

At the top of the list has to be Columbia University Press. There’s no other university press in the country doing as many interesting Asian works in translation as Columbia. (Not to mention the fact that their books are handsomely designed, and paperback editions of several — such as I Love Dollars — have been picked up by very prestigious presses, like Penguin.)

The two big books that came out this year as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series (both of which could’ve easily made our longlist) are Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow and Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Chinese author Wang Anyi was actually a Reading the World book this year, and got some very nice coverage when it came out this summer. Here’s a description from an article by Howard Choy:

Spanning forty odd years from 1945 to 1986, the novel is tripartite. Book I is set in the glittery city of Shanghai during the latter half of the 1940s. Wang Qiyao, a glamorous girl from a lowly family who dreamed of becoming a movie star in her school days, takes third place in the first Miss Shanghai beauty contest after the war. She is then kept as a mistress by a politician, who is unfortunately killed in a plane crash in 1948. In Book II she retreats to the countryside and soon returns as a neighborhood nurse to the fallen city in the 1950s. Associating with three men—a profligate son of the rich, a half-Russian loafer, and a photographer—she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock in 1961. Largely skipping the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Book III covers the decade after the political turmoil. The protagonist spends a simple life with her daughter and young admirers in the reviving city until her daughter gets married and leaves for the United States. With its thinly veiled allusions to Lady Yang Yuhuan’s (719-755) demise romanticized in Bo Juyi’s (772-846) oft-quoted poem “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” the story ends with Wang Qiyao’s violent death while protecting a box of gold bars left to her by the politician. The last thing she sees on her deathbed is the mise en scène of a bedroom murder that she watched forty years ago in a film studio. Miss Shanghai Wang Qiyao’s declining life from youth to old age can be understood synecdochically as Shanghai’s vicissitudes from the postwar to the post-revolutionary periods.

And for anyone interested in sampling this, a pdf excerpt of the first chapter is available through Columbia’s site.

Korean author Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls consists of three stories, including the title one, which “explores both the genesis and the aftershocks of historical outrages such as the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which a reported 2,000 civilians were killed for protesting government military rule.”

Bill Marx of PRI’s The World interviewed Ch’oe Yun and made this sound even more intriguing:

The World: Critics describe you as an experimental, post-modernist author, heavily influenced by Western literary influences. How have avant-garde techniques shaped your writing? In what ways have they not?

Ch’oe Yun: In each of the three works I took pains to apply the most appropriate form to the story’s world-view. I’ll grant you that this approach can appear experimental. I’ve never been one to agonize over technique, though. The notion of language and expression as constituting their own world-view is part and parcel of much of what I’ve read in Western literary thought and aesthetics.

*

Another university press that deserves a lot of praise (and actually got some as well) is Syracuse University Press and their Middle East Literature in Translation Series. (American University at Cairo also deserves some special praise for all they’ve done in making Arabic works available to English readers, but I’ll write about them separately at another time.)

The Virgin of Solitude by Iranian author Taghi Modarressi was one of the most intriguing publications to come out from this series last year. Here’s their description:

Set around the time of the revolution, The Virgin of Solitude follows the parallel lives of a transplanted Austrian woman, who has made Iran her home, and her grandson, Nuri, who desperately misses his mother but hides his longing behind a veneer of teenage bravado. As the turmoil of the revolution envelops the country, grandmother and grandson witness the dissolution of social, class, and political order, while searching for a sense of belonging.

Also, Contemporary Iraqi Fiction was a book that we positively reviewed over the summer. On the Syracuse website you can find podcasts of editor Shakir Mustafa reading and answering questions, and an interview with the aforementioned Bill Marx.

*

Although Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard wasn’t eligible for the Best Translated Book Award (we don’t consider retranslations), this is a good example of the fine work that’s going on at Yale University Press these days. And this year promises to be even more exciting, with the launch of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series and the publication of Can Xue’s novel Five Spice Street.

There are any number of other university presses deserving of attention—University of Nebraska and Northwestern are two others with a long history of publishing literature in translation—and this year we’ll do our best to review more of their books. In many ways, that’s what a site like Three Percent exists for . . .

16 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s not available on The Bloomsbury Review website1, but Syracuse University Press was named as the Publisher of the Year, due in great part, to its Middle East Literature in Translation Series.

In the write-up, Jeff Biggers cites both Taghi Modarressi’s The Virgin of Solitude: A Novel and Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology (which we reviewed) as examples of the great work SUP is doing.

At a time with bookstores are overwhelmed by superficial cut-and-paste portraits of the Middle East that provide little insight into the cultures and experiences in the war-torn region, Syracuse University Press serves as a beacon of light for the publishing industry. These books deserve the widest distribution and attention possible in our country.

Congratulations to Syracuse University Press. It’s great to see a publisher honored for its commitment to international literature.

1 I swear I’m sick of repeating the same complaints, but the Bloomsbury Review website is yet another example of a publisher/magazine website that’s so out-of-date to basically be useless. Look, I’m glad you’re trying to protect your content, but this way of listing back issues is insane. And I’m 99% sure that I’ll never download a pdf, print it out, complete it, and mail/fax it in to get a subscription. Even if it’s not perfect, Google Checkout is free and very easy to install and use.

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