Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Thinking About Syria

Just Like A River

Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib

I have been thinking these past few days, especially in light of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, of how blessed it is to be to be among those able to live a peaceful and secure life, free from the madness of war and economic privation.  Watching footage of the August, 1963 March with my children, I was moved, as I always am, by the size and energy of the crowd gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: women in dresses and men in white shirts and ties (despite the suffocating Washington humidity, folks were dressed as if for church); young and old crowded the walkways that edge the reflecting pool, spilling north and south toward the aprons of grass where memorials to wars in Vietnam and Korea now stand.  The courage and yearning for human dignity reflected in the faces of that crowd--black and white faces intermingled with the easy grace that frightened many Americans--made me think, this time around, through the usual terrible accidents of history, of the generations of suffering undergone by the people of Syria, a thought forced upon me in recent days by the gas attacks unleashed by Assad's forces and by the gut-wrenching photographs of shrouded bodies--adults and small children--from Khan al-Assal and other villages outside of Aleppo. Syrians have endured decades of political and economic oppression; the more complex issue, and one I am unqualified to judge, is the extent to which the forces now allied against the regime of Bashar al-Assad promise relief from the policies imposed on Syrians by the Ba'ath Party for the past forty years.

It was with a sense of relief, and an equally strong sense of unreality, that I turned this past weekend to a small novel by the highly-regarded Syrian scholar and novelist Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib--Hakadha ka-l nbahar, translated by Michelle Hartman and Maher Barakat as Just Like a River. On a quiet Saturday afternoon, with no bombs falling in my neighborhood and none of my neighbors asphyxiating from Sarin gas, I allowed myself to slip into the (deceptively) quiet world of Damascus as it existed in the 1980's--not a place altogether at peace, but at least a city where one might fall in love, enjoy friendship, pursue a career, and dream of a possible future. 

Hani Zurob
Al-Khatib's novel follows a nested group of characters through the tense political landscape following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel--one short vignette folds into another, with the stories overlapping but not moving toward clear resolution--in just the way a river flows through a landscape.  Chief Sergeant Yunis's daughter Dallal is a university student and devoted to an Englishman who happens to be her professor; Yusuf is attracted to Dallal but wary--she isn't the sort of girl to settle down with a poor elementary school teacher.  Yusuf's best friend, Zuhayr is devoted to Layla, who has married a man she doesn't love to escape Damascus.  Fawziya is a divorced woman with a small child who is Dallal's good friend and eager to become romantically involved with a decent man....and so it goes, not quite a soap opera because what informs the relations of the book are limited rather than unlimited possibilities--the aspirations of the characters all run up against the realities of living in a poor country that is at war and governed, as we now see quite clearly, by a dictatorial dynasty.

What moved me in this lovely gem of a novel was the evocation of normality.  Certainly there is a sense of futility in the restless pursuit of love and a meaningful life, but that, of course, is the point--that is the meaning of "normal."  As I followed events in Syria this past week with an increasing sense of horror, it was a relief to be drawn back into the push and pull of ordinary yearning, desire removed from the cruelty of politics.  Again: to find in fiction a concern for the human realities that should (but never do) transcend the cruelties of power. 

"As time passed, Dallal grew to love Fawziya, and she even began to find the Middle Eastern feminity within herself that she had hidden behind the mask of her education and liberation."

Aside from love and longing, al-Khatib's  other great theme is enlightenment--the powerful attraction of learning for those who have been assigned a limited role in society--as a teacher or student or soldier--and who chafe against the subtle yet binding norms of conduct in a Muslim country. I imagine that the touching story of Yusuf's search for liberation through the embrace of an intellectual life was the author's own means of escape.

"Yusuf opened the book that he had bought the other day, The Age of Enlightenment, and tried to read, to escape from both his memories and himself.  He felt that his past and his present were alive and portrayed on every page of the book.  He saw pictures on the pages but realized that he could not understand even one word.  He closed the book, got up, and made himself a cup of coffee, sat back down, and drank it, surrendering to the memories that he had become addicted to." 

Is there a better definition of peace, of a life well lived than this?  To read a book, to think freely one's thoughts, to pass from thinking to reverie and back again?  Isn't this the goal of the great social and political movements now unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa?  Yes: rights and political empowerment; but toward what end?  For peace, security, and the right to envision a possible future for oneself and one's children.  Yes: we have a dream.  

Readers owe a great debt to Interlink fiction for making available little known authors and titles from the Middle East, North Africa, India and China.  Here is a link to their web page and catalog:

Just Like a River is considered to be that country's finest modern novel.  All available biographical information about Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib appears to be in Arabic. 

George Ovitt (8/27/12)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Wonder That Is India

My fascination with India began in 1985. A graduate student at NYU, I spent much of the little money I had collecting ragas, watching the films of Satyajit Ray, and gorging myself on curry, dal, and nan in nearby “Little India,” a single block of East 6th Street crammed, at the time, with as many as 30 inexpensive Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants. Not long after that I met my wife-to-be, a former East Asian Studies major at Barnard, fell in love, when together we set our sights on India, travelling first to Delhi, Srinagar, and Leh, then, a year later, to Bombay (now Mumbai) and south—to Bangalore, Mysore, Ootacamund, Trivandrum, and Chochin, settling at last in Kovalam where we lived for a month on the beach.

In that time I read everything about India I could get my hands on, a stumbling, slapdash initiation into the country and its peoples that included such well-known and lesser-known works as The Discovery of India; The Great Mutiny; India: A Wounded Civilization; Sources of Indian Tradition; The Bhagavad Gita; Thy Hand, Great Anarch!; Portrait of India; The Essentials of Indian Philosophy; The City of Joy; Ramakrishna and his Disciples; The Speaking Tree; Freedom at Midnight; and The Wonder That Was India. As fiction was my passion, I devoured the novels and short stories of R.K. Narayan, Attia Hosain, Nayantara Saghal, Mulk Raj Anund, Ismat Chugtai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Gucharan Das, Anita Desai, Indira Mahindra, Kushwant Singh, Altaf Fatima, Raja Rao, and Rabindranath Tagore (with one of whose most prominent translators, a man named William Radice, I happened to share a train ride between Oxford and London one day). In Kerala I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in a hotel room flooded to the bedsprings by relentless monsoons rains.

Yet it is likely I would never have read any of these, let alone travelled to India itself, had it not been for a chance encounter with a single book—E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage To India.

If colonialism produced anything good (a matter much debated to this day), perhaps this, this novel of Forster’s, is one of its bright, if bitter fruits. His treatment of the waning days of the British Raj (a time and experience he knew well) is not only politically nuanced and often commendably frank, but eminently sensitive, humane. While for many Forster stands damned by Katherine Mansfield’s so-eager-to-be-witty contention that he never gets any further in his novels “than warming the teapot,” I urge you to consider (or reconsider) this last  novel of his, a work, a brew, sampled and extolled by readers and critics as distinguished and varied as Leonard Woolf, Lionel Trilling, and Rebecca West. Among Forster’s more contemporary paracletes is the adroit and savvy British author, Zadie Smith, who remarked in a recent interview in The Atlantic that her novel On Beauty was an homage to Forster, “to whom all my fiction is indebted.” What she praises Forster for in general, what I praise him for in particular, is his unshakable liberal humanism, his unabashed, unapologetic devotion to Love and to the sanctity of human relationships, those dear and daily encounters that, for him (as well as for his more prescient characters like Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Mr. Fielding) must finally and always take precedence over race and country and creed.

In his life, as in his fiction, Forster lived a kind of golden mean, charting a path, in an age of fanatics, that distinguished him by what might be called a teleological, Anglo-Aristotelian restraint. I love the way Smith puts it:

…there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was free of the many vices commonly found in novelists of his generation—what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the Pope nor the Queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin, Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a hand-basket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum, or foreigners swamping the cities.

At the heart of this affecting novel are the valiant if hapless efforts of a few characters (one Muslim, two English) to surmount the many and cruelly consequential barriers that divide British India—barriers of race, sex, class, religion,  nationality, education, and caste. Indeed the hierarchical structure of human relationships during the more than three hundred years of British rule in India is clearly established in the novel’s first few pages with the brilliant description of the town of Chandrapore in which the bulk of the novel is set. 

Dedicated to his Indian friend, cicerone, and unrequited love, Syed Ross Masood, Forster’s A Passage to India is an eloquent, polyphonic, deeply affectionate tale about India and the insidious ways that colonialism corrupts and retards human relationships—a racist, sum-zero, implicitly violent sectarianism still very much alive in India today. 

Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) is the author of Where Angels Fear To Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room With  View, Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Maurice, which was only published after his death.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Walls Visible and Invisible

The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories by Carlos Fuentes

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense."

There's one between North and South Korea, and a forbidding one separating Israelis from Palestinians--but the one I've seen, the one closest to home, is this one, this "scar on the earth" that separates North America from Mexico.  Driving from Nogales, Arizona to its "sister city" of Nogales, Sonora, one sees the rusted metal bars rising and falling across the undulating hills that separate two nations, two different worlds, or at least two worlds we are told to believe are wholly different.  When seen through the eyes of Carlos Fuentes, one is not so sure of this difference; what one sees instead is a porous barrier that is more like glass than steel.

Designed to discourage the movement of people from South to North, the Great Wall of Arizona and New Mexico, a wall guarded by thousands of Border Patrol agents, has become a monument to our our determination to hunker down, defend "the homeland" and to keep those "others" out of sight--except, that is, if we require their underpaid labor.  Driving through central California a few weeks ago, I saw strawberry fields full of stooped Mexican workers and wondered about the walls they had lept over to secure their (temporary) employment in the promised land.

"War on the Border" proclaims the headline in today's Times: "The U.S.-Mexican border has become a war zone. It is also a transfer station for sophisticated American military technology and weapons. As our country's foreign wars have begun to wind down, defense contractors look here, on the southern border, to make money."  There are already Blackhawk helicopters patrolling the border, surveillance towers, and, our President's weapon of choice, drone aircraft, all to patrol "the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall." (John McCain) 

How did this happen? Not so many years ago my wife and I were able to stroll back and forth across the border from Columbus, New Mexico to Palomas, Sonora without so much as a glance from the sleepy guards (most days there was no one "guarding" the border at all); schoolchildren from the Mexican side of an invisible line attended school in a tiny buidling on the New Mexico side, sitting in classrooms with their neighbors--no more.

Of course, not all walls are made of steel and concrete, a fact Carlos Fuentes understands well.  In this collection of inter-connected stories, Fuentes examines the walls between North and South that are internalized--cultural and psychological barriers  that we gringos and our Mexican neighbors carry across invisible walls constructed by economics and politics.  Nine tales of misunderstanding, of fear, of yearning.  Fuentes has examined the porousness of the "crystal frontier" since Terra Nostra; his Mexico and our United States are tragically bound together by a shared geography and history and the fact that millions of Americans trace their family origins to Mexico.  In my my own state, the oldest families are Navajo and Zuni; and then there are the Hispanics, peninsularies and mestizos,  who for four centuries have resided in New Mexico mountain pueblos.  The usurpers in this land are the descendants of the English, latecomers, whose arrival in Tidewater Virginia came more than a century after the settlement of the people whose land would be stolen from them in 1848.

The Crystal Frontier recounts stories connected to one another by the presence of Leonardo Barroso, a Sonoran oligarch whose wealth and power insulate him from the more egregious insults leveled by norteamericanos toward their dark-skinned neighbors.  Barroso's acquaintances, employees, children, and lovers provide the material for these beautifully written and deeply political stories.  A young medical student whose residence in Ithaca, New York uncovers a dual alienation--from his Reaganite American hosts and his own fabricated past ("Pain"); a young Mexican woman, poor and without prospects, who enters the walled estates of both Mexican and North American elites thanks to her beauty and sensuality--but who never can escape her sense of not belonging.  ("A Capital Girl") The lives lived in close proximity, but endless distance, from one another on the Rio Grande. ("Rio Grande/Rio Bravo").

The title story, the finest in the collection, describes one of Barroso's business schemes: he will fly poor Mexican laborers to New York City each weekend to clear downtown office towers, thereby saving his gringo contractors "30%, even with airfare."  After all, Barroso argues, cheap labor is Mexico's greatest gift to North American capitalism.  "Crystal Frontier" takes the notion of "migratory worker" to its illogical extreme--cheaply dressed men in straw hats commuting on a commericial airline four times a month to clean the crystal towers of "a brutal, murderous city...where we all recognize ourselves and see our best and our worst."  One of the workers, Lisandro Chavez--handsome, intelligent, "presentable"--understands the absurdity of his employment, of his fate as the son of a well-off man who has lost everything thanks to the vagaries of neo-liberalism.  As he flies to El Norte, Lisandro muses on borders:

"He didn't want to look down for fear of discovering something horrible that could be seen only from the air. There was no homeland anymore, no such thing as Mexico; the country was a fiction or, rather, a dream maintained by a handful of madmen who at one time believed in the existence of Mexico. . . A family like his was not going to be able to withstand twenty years of crisis, debt, bankruptcy, hopes raised only to fall again with a crash . . . [Lisandro] spent twenty years trying to tie together loose ends, to forget the illusions of the past, stripping away ambition for the future, inoculating himself with fatalism, defending himself against resentment, proudly humiliated in his tenacious will to get ahead despite everything."

Wiping down a clear, crystal window in a in New York office building, Lisandro meets a gringa, a woman who is as empty and devoid of illusions as Lisandro himself.  The woman, Audrey, an advertising executive whose office "is the whole world," ironically a woman, like Lisandro, without a country (because capitalism has destroyed all borders), struck by Lisandro's physical beauty, yearning to believe that this stranger could somehow fill the emptiness in her own life, writes her name backward, YERDUA, in lipstick on the crystal frontier.  Lisandro, befuddled, flattered, does not write his own name, "so unusual in English," but only this: NACIXEM.  For that is what he is, that is the way in which he will be seen--as a Mexican, whiter than most, but someone to be kept behind a wall, on the other side of a high and terrible fence.

Carlos Fuentes died last May, age 83.  With Marquez, Vargas-Llosa, and Julio Cortazar, Fuentes was one of the great writers of "El Boom."  

The Crystal Frontier, translated by Alfred Mac Adam, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

George Ovitt (8/18/13)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

After Babel: Foreigners and the English Language

The need for translation is self-evident.
                       George Steiner

It is to a Frenchman that I am most indebted for my love of the English language. Though he wrote exclusively in French, Marcel Proust (with the aid of his greatest champion and translator, C.K. Scott Moncrieff) transformed my understanding of the richness and potential of English. This is not hyperbole. Until I read Moncrieff’s rendition of Swann’s Way (a copy of which my stepmother had given me as a gift when I started college, convinced without reason that I would find my way round to it), this language I’d been born to was something—like my eyes, my eardrums, my teeth—that I’d taken for granted, speaking it without hearing it, reading it without seeing it, and writing it without curiosity, affection or joy. Testing the water with just the first few pages of Proust one day was like suddenly discovering I could read Sanskrit or Greek. I knew the words (it was English after all), yet the world they described (both the fin-de-siècle world of Paris and that uniquely Proustian world of words) was distinctly exotic to me. So heady was the novel’s English, so complex its sentences, so dogged, so solipsistic, so all-consuming its dream, that at points I remember gasping for air. Above all the writing was beautiful, sonorous—like the plays of Shakespeare, a song of songs, a protracted incantation to the kingdom and glory of words.

Translation—its usefulness, its sheer practicability—has long been a matter of debate. Paul Celan, a Romanian poet and translator read widely in translation, remarked, “Only in the mother tongue can one speak his own truth, in a foreign tongue the poet lies.” It is a position remarkably widespread. For years I taught at an independent school in Manhattan where my department Chair forbade us to teach literature in translation (though he himself taught The Odyssey each year) arguing, as he had, that the act of translation was inherently flawed, if not fraudulent, that it could never do justice to art. The argument is not without merit: a good translation is not and can never be a duplicate of the original. What it is instead is a brilliant re-creation, something both derivative and new, an attempt—according to Valéry—to produce similar effects by different means.

Yet in truth any attempt at communication, even in one’s own language (as in speaking, reading or writing) involves translation of a kind, our every gesture to connect with one another a transmutation of forms. While surely there are good and bad translations, the necessity itself is clear. Translation is not just human; it is all that we have. 

Think of the story of the Tower of Babel. God, in his anger at humans for attempting to build a tower to heaven, shatters their once-unified language into a thousand mutually unintelligible tongues. For avid readers and writers, it is a story rife with implications. With the destruction of the tower and the confounding of human language, “The people ceased to be one,” writes Octavio Paz. “The beginning of plurality was also the beginning of history: empires, wars, and the great piles of rubble that civilizations have left.” For Paz, as for readers and writers everywhere, our hope as humans is plain: “…the Spirit is One, languages are Many, and the bridge between the two is Translation.”

A good translation is as miraculous as alchemy—and vastly more lucrative. For the translation of world literature not only enriches us—morally, culturally, aesthetically, politically—but enriches our language, too, coloring the words and phrases we know, pressing hard upon our conventions, and generally expanding the “the compass of observed and rendered life.”* I can hardly imagine how small and impoverished my life would be were it not for the work of such world-class translators as C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Robert Hollander, Robert Fagles, Edith Grossman, Gregory Rabassa, Joachim Neugroschel, Hillel Halkin, Sophie Wilkins, David Magarshack, David McLintock, Arthur Waley, Donald Keene, Lydia Davis, John E. Woods, William Maynard Hutchins, Constance Garnett, Edward Fitzgerald, Nicholas de Lange, William Weaver, Maureen Freely, Anthea Bell, Richard Pevear, Larrisa Volokhonsky, J.M. Cohen, Frances Steegmuller, and Rabindrinath Tagore. After the writers themselves, it is to their translators—those all but invisible agents of world poetry and prose—that I owe the greatest debt.

* From “The Retreat from the Word” by George Steiner

Peter Adam Nash