Idris Ali. Dongola: A Novel of Nubia. Peter Theroux, tr. Fayetteville. University of Arkansas Press. 1998. 114 pages. $24 ($14 paper). ISBN 1- 55728-531-4 (532-2 paper).
When the Aswan High Dam was built by Nasser's Egypt, it was internationally acclaimed as a great feat of modern engineering, especially as the adjacent Abu Simbel monuments were raised and saved. Few were aware of the human cost to the displaced villagers, whose lands and homes were inundated by the world's largest man-made lake and whose lives were utterly subverted, although materially compensated. Written in Arabic by Idris Ali, Dongola: A Novel of Nubia chronicles the pain of the region's villagers against a nostalgic background memory of their ancient history as an independent people, with their own Nubian language and culture and with Dongola as the proud capital of their Nubia, now one third in Egypt and two thirds in Sudan.
Idris Ali is himself a Nubian, currently living in Cairo, where he was educated and published three short-story collections and another novel. He admits he loves "the people of the north" and their culture, yet in his dedication he pleads with them not to tear up his pages conveying "some of my sorrows, and those of my people." Formerly Christian, the Nubians resisted Arab Islam but were finally defeated and gradually acculturated; meanwhile, many were sold as black slaves, and, more recently, many were employed in "the north" in menial jobs.
Dongola is the first Nubian novel ever translated. Its Nubian characters express considerable hatred for "the north," but through plot, characterization, and events, its author offers deep insight into the workings of history, current social forces, and beleaguered human psychology, fictionalized in the life of a family and a village.
Awad Shalali is a Nubian worker in modern Cairo, dreaming of restoring the past glories of Dongola. As a communist hostile to Nasser's regime, he is imprisoned. Upon his release, he returns to his Nubian village, where his mother ekes out a poor existence and wants him to get married. On being pursued by the authorities, he leaves the village secretly and is lost to his people in the capitals of Europe, where he falls in love with Simone, a French orientalist. When he secretly returns home to his mother, now old and blind, he wonders how he had given "so much thought to his motherland and so little to his mother." The elders of the village prevail upon him to marry. Unwillingly, he accepts his mother's choice of a bride: the woman who kindly served her. A month later, Awad's wanderlust takes him abroad yet again; he occasionally sends money to his wife and mother, but he provides no return address. His mother dominates his frustrated wife, who dutifully rejects other men's advances but rebels against the mother. One night the wife succumbs to her sexual needs and is discovered in flagrante delicto by the mother. Trying unsuccessfully to plead with the mother and silence her call for help, the wife strangles her as the man flees. She dresses quickly and calls for help. The villagers arrive and she tells them an Upper Egyptian man has murdered her mother-in-law.
Peter Theroux, author of three books and translator of six, offers a flowing English rendering of the novel. However, one should read the fine print of his note on the copyright page, which says, "Some additions, deletions, and small adjustments have been made to the English text of Dongola: A Novel of Nubia, with the consent of the author."
Issa J. Boullata
McGill University, Montreal
Shahrnush Parsipur. Women Without Men. Kamran Talattof, Jocelyn Sharlet, trs. Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse University Press. 1998. xviii + 131 pages. $22.95. ISBN 0-8156-0552-8.
Much of the most interesting postrevolutionary fiction being written in Persian is by women, and Shahrnush Parsipur is one of the bright lights among them. Born in Tehran in 1946, she now lives and publishes her writing in the United States. First issued in Persian in 1989, Women Without Men is a subtle and sophisticated work in the postmodern manner. It is the story of five women from different walks of life who end up, for various reasons, in a walled garden by a river in a town near Tehran. They are all seeking escape from life in Tehran at a time of civil unrest in 1953. They live and work more or less harmoniously in the garden for some months and then again go their own ways.
Such a bare plot description gives no idea of the richness of the book. Although all the women are unhappy because of their relations with men, there is no time when they are together without men. They have been subjected to many types of violence, physical and mental, perpetrated by men, but in the end three of them marry and begin a new life. While they are together they accept a hierarchy of power, and there is not always great sisterly love and solidarity. Most, but not all, of the men in the story are ineffectual, lazy, insensitive, or violent, whereas the women are bored, catty, or repressed. After witnessing a rape, one woman sides against the victim, and the experience so unhinges her that she becomes a tree in the garden. Another dies violently twice, revives each time, and finally flies off into the sky for seven years before returning to become a teacher. A third marries, gives birth to a lily, and disappears into the air like smoke with her husband and child. The narrative is fragmented and discontinuous, and magical realism is the mode.
All this suggests that it would be a mistake to read Women Without Men simply as a feminist tract. The action is set in the patriarchal society of Persia, and there is much violence against the women; but this is not just another "oppositional narrative," where all the men are bad and all the women are good. Parsipur navigates skillfully between the extremes of mainstream discourse and overt opposition and ranges about in the no-man's land between the two. The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred by the use of magical realism, but a certain unobtrusive formality of structure reminds us that this is art as well as ideology. The irony that pervades the text prevents stereotyping of the characters and subverts its ideological thrust, again keeping it in the disputed territory between tract and trance. The author makes her point but also makes something else, and in so doing she has created a small masterpiece.
William L. Hanaway
University of Pennsylvania
Shulamit Lapid. Etzel Babou. Jerusalem. Keter. 1998. 152 pages. ISBN 965-07-0748-4.
Shulamit Lapid's seventh novel, "Chez Babou," follows the trend in contemporary Israeli literature, which has of late focused greatly on marginal, often voiceless communities that dwell at the periphery of Israeli society in an attempt to draw Israelis' attention to nonentities in their midst. This particular novel centers on the experience of foreign laborers employed in the Israeli construction industry.
In Lapid's novel, Brazilians, Romanians, Nigerians, and Ghanaians create a community of their own, with its distinctive structure, rules, and regulations. The characters congregate after work and on holidays at a bar on the shores of Tel Aviv/Jaffa named after its young Israeli owner, Babou. Not unlike his customers, who possess his complete trust, Babou is a marginal character and an outcast. While chasing an Arab boy during the intifada, he is severely burned, and as such, he is mistaken for an Arab and shot by members of his unit. As a result, he is rendered both physically and mentally impaired. After two years of recovery, he is dramatically changed; he can hardly speak, and he even temporarily severs his relationship with his mother, a Holocaust survivor. He ultimately reaches a point where he considers any involvement, especially an emotional one, to be detrimental to his sanity.
The silence and the purity he craves, the emotional cleanliness he cries out for, is but an illusion. Not unlike the foreign workers, he is disenfranchised, marginalized, and emotionally scarred and barren. He avoids all contact with his mother because of her attempts to instill within him a deep sense of victimhood, of being a survivor, while he prefers to live in an almost hygienic bubble, to operate only within his own private landscapes, both real and imaginary.
Babou's placid life is suddenly and drastically changed one day by the discovery of a maimed young Brazilian woman he finds bleeding behind the bar, amid the filth and the rotting car tires. Respecting her request that he not contact the authorities, he takes her in, washes her, and nurses her back to health.
Questions resonate throughout the novel: who is this woman-child with distinct Indian features? And how does she affect Babou's life? As the tale progresses, Babou is deftly manipulated by the foreign workers into a vicious, cruel family and ethnic feud. Ironically, he regains his humanity but is left scarred after a complex and bizarre ordeal involving murder, unexpected tenderness, and the life of a baby. As such, he is pulled out of his emotional shell, only to be cast again into stark loneliness. Lapid creates an absorbing story of murder and mystery (she has published several detective books) that also succeeds in depicting the inhabitants of a marginal yet fascinating subculture in modern-day Israel.
Hebrew College, Boston
Amos Oz. The Story Begins: Essays on Literature. Maggie Bar-Tura, tr. New York. Harcourt Brace. 1999. vi + 118 pages. $20. ISBN 0-15-100297- 5.
In The Story Begins Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, essayist, and children's story writer, studies the opening paragraphs of various fictional works to show how essential beginnings are in novels and short fiction. Borrowing from Anton Chekhov's classic story "The Lady with the Dog," Oz likens courting to openings of books and short stories: the man attracts the reader with the opening paragraph so that the reader will continue perusing the work, thus establishing a contract between author and reader. Oz discusses the limitless possibilities with which a fiction writer may begin an essay, contrasting the methodology of the fiction writer with that of a scholarly author such as his father: the scholarly author may rely on countless previous books and essays as well as reference guides, whereas a fiction writer relies solely on his own imagination; that is why Oz claims that his father's desk was as crowded as a Calcutta slum while his own desk is as empty as a Kosovo airstrip. Oz admits his ambivalence regarding creative writing; fiction writing provides the author with unlimited freedom, but the writer can never support or prove his ideas the way that a scholar can.
Oz speculates on the opening of Dostoevsky's "White Nights." He initially calls the opening sentimental and inadequate, but then he questions whether the author is too sentimental or whether it is actually the narrator's fault; thus, Dostoevsky's opening is perhaps not flawed, but rather it characterizes his protagonist, who is also the narrator. Oz wonders if a work even has a beginning, because, as Edward Said has remarked, something must precede the beginning; for instance, if someone is born, two people must have sired and conceived this child.
Oz continues with an analysis of Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest. After a brief discussion of the work, Oz scrutinizes its opening pages, demonstrating how the rigid and structured landscape, complete with right angles and exact symmetry, symbolizes the obdurate and harsh society in which Effi lives. In fact, he goes on to compare her constrained circumstances to those of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary. The natural landscape that Oz describes in the novel's opening sequence suggests a tenseness beyond the surface tranquillity and prepares the reader for the tragedy that ensues. The oppressive and static culture, with its shadows and prisonlike characteristics, suggests to Oz the menacing and claustrophobic feelings that the heroine experiences.
S. Y. Agnon's short novel In the Prime of Her Life resembles Effi Briest in that the work focuses on a young woman who marries an older man who once loved her mother. Oz, in his analysis of the work's opening paragraphs, discusses the importance of identity (and the confusion of identity) in the work. Furthermore, the beginning manifests the parents' neglect of the heroine (Tirtza), which adversely affects her personality and actions (such as her foolish desire to marry).
Nikolai Gogol's story "The Nose" begins with a trap, and the reader may get lost initially because of the narrator's digressions and anarchic style. The illogical narrator whom Gogol presents at the outset reflects the illogical premise of the story: the search for the nose of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, which has abandoned the unfortunate man. Thus, the bizarre opening of the story, like the more traditional beginnings mentioned previously, serves as a contract between author and reader.
The suspenseful apology that initiates Kafka's story "A Country Doctor" may perplex the reader because the doctor's actions seem to be beyond reproach. Oz believes that Kafka's employment of first-person narrative causes the reader to sympathize with the doctor from the outset (the doctor borrows horses in order to visit a sick patient, but he does not realize until it is too late that the horse lender will assault Rose after he leaves). Oz asserts that the opening passage manifests that the doctor "is found guilty only because a man's guilt is always lying in wait for him." It is puzzling that Oz never considers the possibility that the doctor could turn the horses around and rescue Rose.
Raymond Carver's "Nobody Said Anything" contains a deceptively simple opening, which is typical for this subtle and minimalist author. Oz astutely points out the correlations between the story's opening and conclusion, such as the movement from the inside to the outside of the house and the protagonist's failed attempts to terminate his parents' heated arguments. As with the other chapters, Oz painstakingly dissects the story's opening passages to illuminate various aspects of the characters' personalities.
Amos Oz's essay collection is an insightful study of the significance of opening passages in selected fictional works of literature. The author demonstrates how the beginnings of fictional works serve as contracts that bind together writer and reader. Although Oz analyzes but one story in each chapter, he cleverly makes connections between the stories-e.g., the birth metaphor in "The Nose" and "A Country Doctor"-in order to establish paradigms that support his thesis.
Auburn University, Montgomery
Sleepwalkers & Other Stories: The Arab in Hebrew Fiction. Ehud Ben- Ezer, ed. Boulder, Co. Rienner. 1999. viii + 183 pages. $19.95. ISBN 0- 89410-852-2.
For more than a century the Arab has featured both centrally and marginally in Hebrew literature. The role of the Arab may be broken down into several separate categories. In the pre-1948 era, the writer's relation to the Arab was quite simplistic: ultimately a romanticized notion of Bedouin life as a symbol of freedom from Western cultural constraints. However, once tensions between the two communities escalated, these romanticized notions gave way to a more realistic depiction. This of course arose from the watershed experience of the 1948 war of independence. Along with the bloodshed came basic questions of Jewish identity, self-definition, and relation to the land. As such, the writings of the 1948 generation were marked by a declaration of statehood as the central tenet of their personal and literary existence: They functioned to translate national aspiration into reality. In addition, the war raised issues of personal morality for the protagonists in Israeli fiction: in other words, what is one's relation to the enemy-at that point in time invariably the Arab?
Finally, beginning in the 1960s, the Arab-particularly in the work of Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua-features as victim. Ehud Ben-Ezer's helpful anthology Sleepwalkers and Other Stories exposes English-speaking readers to a selection of short fiction; the stories of the pre- statehood years are for the most part nonadversarial, whereas in the stories of post-statehood days, the atmosphere
changes and is suffused with tension and memory. Clearly, a changed political outlook is reflected in the literary portrayal of the Arab. At the same time, self-questioning evokes moral issues and a quest for resolution. This leads to a fundamental interpretive problem: must every work of literature be regarded as a symptom of a society in crisis? Must we posit a directly reactive relation between the political situation and contemporary fiction? Do modes of transmission reveal the writer's political stance?
On the most general level the image of the Arab-Israeli relationship may be seen as an archetype of the stranger casting a shadow over one's existence-a presence which must be related to and may not be ignored. Ethical as well as esthetic issues are markers of a literature of conflict. The proximity of literature to life-displayed well in Ben- Ezer's anthology, which will be of use to students of both literature and political science-adds to the complexity of the issues.
Hebrew College, Boston
S. Yizhar. Malkomiah Yefefiah. Tel Aviv. Zmora Bitan. 1998. 210 pages.
Ever since the founding of the State of Israel fifty years ago, S. Yizhar has been sui generis among the country's prominent writers. For in an emerging society that was marked by collectivism, dynamism, and futurism, his was the voice of the individual, rooted in the existential, esthetic, and ethical realities of the moment. His felicitous descriptions of nature, as well as of the landscape of the human soul, are unsurpassed in modern Hebrew letters, poetry as well as prose. In his latest volume, "Lovely Malcolmia," with the same gift for visual description, observation of human beings, and sensitivity to both cerebration and conversation that inform his earlier works, the old master has written a book which, surprisingly, contains some of the most erotic artistry to be found in Israeli literature. It is a virtual paean to sexuality generally, and to woman's body specifically. And all this despite the fact that, by the popular criteria of modern action narrative, "nothing happens!"
One bright day, the unnamed hero wakes up in the sure knowledge that he will go to beautiful Shula, who is Woman. This he does, filled with exquisite yearning, and taking with them A Guide to the Flora of Israel, they go out into nature, in search of the "Lovely Malcolmia," a perfect flower that is the author's creation. In fact, this is really the story of the eternal quest of the male for the female, for it is his story, not hers. It is the exploration of his thoughts and feelings about this wonderful opportunity to achieve his passionate desires: how he will open the conversation, what he will say when they embrace, and how exquisitely beautiful she is in his eyes. Not a limb of her body escapes sensual description, and her merest movement elicits pages of poetic adoration. Her casual brushing away of a lock of hair with her fingers evokes the mysterium tremendum no less than that of a dramatic sunset or cloud-piled sky. The man cannot help but behold Shula with awe, imagine her nakedness, and be in thrall over the fantasy of how it would be, if it were to be.
Despite the book's overwhelming eroticism, where even its diversions focus on sexuality-be it that of snails or of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or descriptions of lovemaking among doves, hornets, and horses-it doesn't seem to have happened: the gentle wind that erases their footsteps leaves no evidence of their having passed. What we do know is that they have not discovered the perfect flower they sought.
Within the very book itself, S. Yizhar provides a caveat lector: desist from reading this book immediately, if you want a beginning and an end, and if action is what you crave. For this is a "middle story," according to its author, with neither beginning nor end. The central figure, the unnamed man, doesn't actually do anything. It is a story that doesn't happen in action. The provided explanation is that active relationships between a man and a woman are invariably incomplete. The great divide may be narrowed, but never crossed. Like parallel lines by the Euclidean definition, they can never truly meet and fuse, and each must remain, in measure, an Other. Consequently, the most important thing can never be any momentary activity, but the eternal reflection, adoration, and awe. Thus, whoever seeks a beginning and an end misses the most important things: the wondrous, secret sense of why we are here, the joy of living, the experience of beauty, all patently more important than "what happened."
One wonders why the author refrains from providing insight into the soul of the woman, and thereby elevating her above the level of the man's object. Indeed, many lesser male writers presume, with varying degrees of success, to explore and explain the inner world of women. In the hands of a writer such as S. Yizhar this would have expanded the book's scope, but not to its detriment. Perhaps the simple explanation is to be found in the aphorism of George Eliot: "Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact."
"Lovely Malcolmia" is clearly an old man's response to a world view promulgated most famously by Ecclesiastes, who lamented the deteriorations, infirmities, and limitations of old age prior to The End. S. Yizhar's book is something of a refutation, a demonstration that joy does exist, always, everywhere, in life itself. The unstated adjuration is the very dictum of the ancient sage: "Sweet is the light, and it is pleasure to the eyes to see the sun. And however many years a person lives, let him rejoice in them all, and remember that the 'days of darkness' will be many, that later on there is nothingness."
University of Haifa
Hanan al-Shaykh. I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops. Catherine Cobham, tr. New York. Anchor (Doubleday). 1998. 267 pages. $12. ISBN 0-385-49127-1.
I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops is a collection of seventeen short stories written by the well-known Lebanese woman writer Hanan al-Shaykh. The stories deal with the contact between East and West, facets of life in Lebanon, occasional facets of Lebanese life in Africa, and aspects of the lives of people residing in the highlands of Yemen or in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The first theme is preeminent in such selections as the title story, "An Unreal Life," and "The Land of Dreams." Suffice it for now to talk about the first two.
In "I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops" the protagonist idealizes such aspects of British life as freedom in general, particularly free love, and British cultural life, only to face the reality of beggars on the street, heaps of piled-up trash, homosexuality and AIDS, the use of illicit drugs, and British young people's messiness and propensity for taking advantage of her adherence to Arab hospitality codes. But the protagonist is also aware of the flaws of her own society, such as the pervasiveness of poverty, gossip, and hypocrisy, the monotony of life, and the oppressiveness of a male-dominated society. In the end, however, she opts, like the author herself, for the British way of life.
In "An Unreal Life" the protagonist, an Arab woman, is married to a Westerner, thus presenting a conflict therein. Because she entertains ambiguous feelings about her home country, she vacillates between her love for that country and her love for the West. While she enjoys the narrow streets, the noise, and the chaos of the old city where she had grown up, she has nonetheless "a poor opinion of Arab men in general." And although she immerses herself in her old culture and wishes to live there forever, she is fatally attracted to Western speech, fashion, music, and film.
In fact, al-Shaykh blazes a new trail in Arabic fiction here in that she is open about sexual matters and innovative in some of her fictional techniques. On the first matter, she is perhaps the single most uninhibited Arab writer concerning sexuality issues, particularly when it comes to woman's sexual gratification. Where she writes graphically and explicitly on such matters, the describing of nonmarital sexual activities has been a taboo subject in Arab literature, particularly by women writers. Al-Shaykh is equally open about presenting aspects of Arab folklore, magic, superstitions, and the practice of communicating with the supernatural.
The fictional technique in which she excels is her ability to create mood through providing minute details and meticulous description. Passing moments, therefore, become immortalized in print. Possibly, that is why she is likened by some to Katherine Mansfield, who was accomplished at capturing temporary moods, as in her story "The Fly." But more poignant, I believe, is al-Shaykh's similarity to the Sherwood Anderson of Winesburg, Ohio in her creation of unusual or "odd" characters in such stories as "A Season of Madness," "Qut al-Qulub," and "The Keeper of the Virgins." In sum, one can say that the present collection of short stories is rich in insightful details, psychological depth, and cross-cultural encounters.
As for the selection and textual problems of the individual stories and their translation, a few comments are in order. Even though the frontispiece of the anthology names four stories that had been rendered into English earlier by the same translator, Catherine Cobham, and published in 1994, no mention is made of the minor emendations made in the second and current version of the stories. Neither is mention made of the fact that four very short stories in the Arabic collection are not included in the English translation, whereas three stories in the English collection-"The White Peacock of Holland Park," "Cupid Complaining to Venus," and "Do You Know Someone Who Can Teach Me the Piano?"-are not in the original Arabic collection. Thus, it would have behooved the translator to have written a short preface or introduction not only to explain such textual features but also to give the dates when each of the stories was first published in the original language. Such information is essential in order to trace the author's development as well as to place the stories in their proper cultural and historical context.
The English renderings, however, which come from the crisp pen of an experienced translator, are excellent. Cast into British English, they do full justice to the originals in being meticulously faithful but without being excessively literal. Witness, for instance, Cobham's solutions for some of the short stories' titles. The literal translation of "la Budd min San 'aa" and "'indama Tarakat al-Hayat Hayataha" as "San 'aa Is a Must" and "When Life Has Left Its Life" would have been meaningless. The translator instead transforms them into meaningful English as "The Land of Dreams" and "An Unusual Life." In sum, the collection is a worthy addition to the library of Arabic fiction in English translation.
American Graduate School of International Management
Salah Stetie. Fievre et Guerison de l'Icone. Yves Bonnefoy, intro. Paris. UNESCO/Imprimerie Nationale. 1998. 155 pages. 139 F. ISBN 2- 7433-0116-3 (0113-9 paper).
Salah Stetie is a poet of the essence of things. Born in Beirut in 1929, he has published more than forty collections of poetry both in French and Arabic, in which, as Yves Bonnefoy points out in his inspired preface to Fievre et Guerison de l'Icone, the poet ventures on the risky and breathtaking bridge that separates the two languages. Stetie is also a remarkable essayist and a poet-ambassador in the tradition of Paul Claudel, Saint-John Perse, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz. This is only the second time, following a collected edition of the work of Aime Cesaire, that Les Editions de l'Imprimerie Nationale have published an author during his lifetime.
Stetie's poetry encompasses two levels of reality. Ordinary language names the objects, places, and situations that obsessively structure the entire collection as an incantation would: the cool and pure houses of things, the lamp, grapes, our dogs, our books, male and female organs, blood, burning legs, the death of the mother. Then the disturbing and unexpected layout of words in the poem hints at "l'inconnaissance," a reality that exceeds both language and human perceptions and upsets our systems of representation.
Incompleteness and iteration characterize Stetie's verse. Things are incompletely represented, says Bonnefoy, and therefore they are substituted for an essence. The materiality of the word unveils a network of obscure relationships that echoes the lovers' fingers weaving the world and contains the memory of a lost primeval unity. Iterations delineate the elusive space that lies between the contingent and the immaterial. An extreme pattern of imagery opposes snow and burning fire; it unfolds, intertwines, and neutralizes itself through the crystal image of an ever-changing light. The lamp, like language, is successively theatrical, rainy, burst-out, girl-like, bedazzled, indestructible, undivided, homeless, absolute. A "great transparency" illuminates golden children and written characters of the poet's metaphysical insights. The context constantly changes, but iteration "weakens the context of meanings," says Bonnefoy. An apparent tautology disintegrates any glimpse of memory and even undermines the notion: "l'image est endormie dans le feu de l'image"; "l'attente de la neige est pure attente pure"; "nous avons deplie nos plis"; "avec leurs cles dormantes qui dorment"; "c'est l'ecriture qui ecrit."
The balanced architecture of the collection contains a deconstruction of representation that, from images seen and remembered to forces unseen, evokes notions which disintegrate like the broken mirror of a hologram, only to reappear in full on one of the broken pieces. A dormant kind of eroticism smolders under the dominant imagery of the burning fire that illuminates the evanescent unity of the collection: "Elle ecarte les jambes. . . . A la fin morte sous le poids de sa lumiere / Comme une femme absolue par le sang." A dreamlike but violent sexuality permeates the text of the painful images of wound, blood, shame, circumcision. Stetie's poetry weaves an esoteric network of signs that give shape and reach to the mysteries of existence and make of earthly things a prison of blood and sand for the soul: "Et tout le sable et le sable du sable."
Nizar Kabbani. Arabian Love Poems. Bassam K. Frangieh, Clementina R. Brown, trs. Boulder, Co. Rienner. 1999. xiii + 225 pages. $16.95. ISBN 0-89410-881-6.
Well before his death in 1998, the Syrian poet Nizar Kabbani had become an institution by himself. A poet of phenomenal success, he earned considerable critical acclaim, while selling his poems at a rate rarely matched by any Arab author. The collection Arabian Love Poems is meant to familiarize the English audience with what many Arab readers have long admired. This admiration, as Bassam Frangieh indicates in his introduction, rests largely on two features: Kabbani's erotic love, and his new poetic style, in which he brought "poetic language closer to the language used in everyday life." Says Frangieh, this poetic language is Kabbani's "most important achievement."
Unfortunately, it is this important achievement which translations cannot render, thus inevitably leaving the emphasis on the thematic side-on "love poetry," that is. For the most part the selections offered here succeed in representing this side, despite some choices that seem difficult to justify. The book, its selections, and the critical opinion motivating it exemplify the current popular celebration of Kabbani's work. Frangieh is not unaware of Kabbani's rather mediocre standing in comparison with many other names in modern Arabic poetry: "others far surpassed him in vision and sophistication." Yet this inferiority is not highlighted in the prefatory information; it is what the selections indicate.
To read the selection with a memory full of the sophistication of poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Saadi Yousef, or Adunis is to find it difficult to be impressed by most of Kabbani's work: "Like a fish, / Quick and cowardly in love, / You killed a thousand women inside me / And became the queen"; or "Because my love for you / Is higher than words / I have decided to fall silent." Unfortunately, most of the poems here are like this. Those which go farther are those where Kabbani looks beyond his sensuousness, as in number 11, where his love brings him closer to the suffering of others, or as in number 25, where the lover's letters are more important than both lovers because "light is more important than the lantern, / The poem more important than the notebook."
This general mediocrity seems to have motivated the translators to "improve" the originals by altering or eliminating certain lines or passages: two lines are missing from the last passage of poem number 1, perhaps because the translator felt they were redundant; the "thorn" at the very end of number 4 replaces the "branch" in the original, maybe because this would create a logical antithesis to the "rose" preceding it.
The translation process here follows the procedure adopted in a number of similar projects, where native speakers are asked to infuse the texts with more "originality." This procedure, however, has had its drawbacks, as the native speaker usually does not know the "original." But more serious, I think, is what seems to be an inferiority complex that becomes obvious when Western translators of Arab texts rarely go to native Arab readers to give their texts a seal of approval.
Saad A. Al-Bazei
King Saud University, Riyadh
Edith Covensky. Acharey Auschwitz / After Auschwitz. Ed Codish, tr. Tel Aviv. Eked. 1998. 91 pages.
---. Poetica / Poetics. Ed Codish, tr. Tel Aviv. Eked. 1997. 167 pages.
Although the volume of poetry titled After Auschwitz is undoubtedly dedicated to the theme of the Holocaust, the Holocaust and its atrocities are never addressed directly throughout the sequence of poems clustered in this book. Edith Covensky prudently enlists an effective esthetic strategy that avoids excessive emotionality and also holds and dams undesirable sentimentality without giving up the poems' plausibly powerful and equally memorable impact. The poems surrender a sense of vividly vital motion that may turn rather tempestuous while earning a cogent and dramatic touch. Themes such as muteness, darkness, elevated heights, the whirling wind, words and distances, memories and smoke, iron and remote stars densely populate the poems while translating feelings of fear and fright, perplexity, and a sense of loss into metaphorically tangible illustrations.
The poems seem to introduce everlasting turbulent motions that swirl colors and objects, feelings and thoughts, insightful observations and nightmarish scenes, which comprehensively produce a sense of colorful restlessness covering underlying currents in which hesitant hopes encounter overwhelming realizations. Respectively, the same esthetic spirit and poetic proclivities are preserved and cultivated in the volume of poetry titled Poetics. Nevertheless, the unifying umbrella topic engaged with the poetic portrait of the esthetic composition process bestows upon the clustered poems a different thematic and verbal materialization. In a mosaiclike variety of ways, the volume's poems report the process of esthetic composition while "sculpting" a uniquely poetic portrait through the narrator's endless encounters with colors, shadows, words, feelings, the ocean, and variegated manifestations of nature.
In this respect, Poetics focuses upon the process of composing verse while elucidating the countless routes of nature's representations and human feelings, thoughts, and responses which eventually weave the poem's esthetic tissues and fabrics. Edith Covensky possesses a unique capacity to sense, form, document, and deliver a singularly sensitive, discriminating, and even spellbinding cycle. Accordingly, the narrator's "raw" feelings encounter the most enticing aspects of nature and, through a "Midas" touch, translate the encounter into a mutual interaction that eventually conceives and yields poetry of sensually subtle beauty and challenging intellectuality.
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Moshe Pelli. Hatarbut haivrit beamerica. Tel Aviv. Reshafim. 1998. 392 + xx pages. ISBN 965-418-146-0.
"Hebrew Culture in America" is undoubtedly a significant contribution to the historical study of Hebrew culture (primarily belles lettres, literary and professional periodicals, and literary criticism) and a laudable pioneering work by Moshe Pelli, the director of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The book's innovative and unique character stems from the fact that this is the first panoramically comprehensive attempt ever to follow fastidiously the evolution of Hebrew culture and literature in the USA during the last eighty years, portraying this evolution in the most plausibly informative and elucidating fashion.
One of the prominent cornerstones of Hebrew culture in the USA is the national organization entitled the Histadrut Ivrit (Hebrew Association), established in New York City in 1916. Among the leading founders and supporters of this organization were Hebrew writers, historians, critics, and journalists. These founders aimed to continue the remarkable, flourishing Hebrew culture and literature that emerged in Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Hebrew culture and literature gained considerable momentum at the beginning of the twentieth century, eventually spreading to the land of Israel between the first and third decades of the current century. As the center of Hebrew culture and literature continued to prosper in the land of Israel, the attempt by its American counterpart to achieve a similar success in a non-Hebrew-speaking environment turned dramatically heroic indeed. Pelli's impressively meticulous and insightful study does worthy justice to this attempt.
Accordingly, Hatarbut haivrit beamerica documents and maps, in a systematic and illuminating manner, the intricate network of literary and critical activities relating to Hebrew culture in the USA, established, formed, and molded in the Hebrew language during eight long and fruitful decades. Hence, Pelli's admirably substantive book is truly a must for anyone desiring to acquaint himself or herself with Hebrew culture in the USA in the most valuable and rewarding way.
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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