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Interview with Ahmed Saadawi
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Somehow David Bloom, that engaging NBC reporter in the early years of this century, fired my interest in news coverage. The night US forces moved toward Bagdad, I was glued to David’s reports from the Bloom Mobile. I was aware of his cramped conditions and the heat of desert travel. Embedded with the Third Infantry Division, he brought war into our living rooms in startling reality. And like his countless fans, I was devastated to learn weeks later of his death, the blood clot from his legs that moved to his lungs.
Somehow that death was the correlative in my mind of the destruction of a rich artistic and cultural heritage of the ancient world as I watched war creep into Baghdad. I remember thinking of my trip to China not long after it was opened to tourists and my sense that political upheaval had ripped a great artistic heritage out of that country. To the extent that culture is maintained by artifacts, it seemed to have lost its past.
So when the Booker International shortlist was announced, I was caught by Saadawi’s title. I couldn’t help wondering how this middle eastern writer had reached back to Mary Shelley and on back to German myth to deal with that thin line between life and death. There was no decision about which of the shortlisted books I would read first.
Reading the Booker International shortlist is to face a challenge of rhetorical styles. No two books are rhetorically similar. Perhaps their only rhetorical link is that each has been translated into English, each has morphed into a common language. Hebrew, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Danish–the nuances of difference have been somewhat flattened in accessibility.
While the stylistic differences are extreme, there is, however, a thematic similarity that ties the books together. In each novel a central intelligence has told his or her story of struggle to make sense of individual experience–childhood alienation, cultural contradistinction, adult dissonance. Each has probed his or her own experience in something of an obsession to find a pattern, to bring some sort of personal unity to the self facing a world of overwhelming disunity. Together, they argue that each person must work out his/her own survival in some private place of the mind that processes events they are powerless to control.
A post two weeks ago on the Booker official page news noted that the bookies seemed uncertain of the odds in Booker betting. Schweblin was ahead but barely. On her heels was Grossman, Jacobsen, Enard, and Oz with Nors in last place. Those odds hold true today. If they are any indication of this week’s prize announcement, they place a premium on the shorter read and the more experimental forms. Both Schweblin and Grossman are highly innovative in the ways their stories are realized. Form dictates function. Both play off the interaction of a central narrator with a subordinate narrator who shares the angst and provides a seer’s mentality to the action. Enard and Jacobsen in opposing ways introduce readers to highly individualistic experience. The pleasure comes in the collage of details–the minimalist and the encyclopedic. In contrast, Oz and Nors seem highly traditional in working out the journey motif to personal realization.
If I ranked the books by my own reader preferences, I would start with Jacobsen and move to Nors. Toss up Oz and Grossman, and marginalize Schweblin and Enard.
If I speculate on the committee’s choice, I’ll guess that the winner will be Grossman or Enard, possibly Jacobsen or Schweblin. We’ll see Wednesday.
Sonja, the protagonist in Mirror. Shoulder. Signal by Dorthe Nors, struggles to find ways to communicate with a family with whom she has an ambiguous relationship. By and large, she is happiest when she remembers a nest she made for herself in the rye, her own private retreat. Her discomfort with family life overshadows her life as a single adult causing her to remain something of a child and to long always to return to that childhood escape.
Her prolonged struggle to learn to drive may be the best metaphor for her delayed maturity. It certainly speaks well for her that she would attempt that learning as an adult and suggests that she knows that trying new things is important, but the laborious and ineffectual lessons threading through the novel betray her own flexibility. There is a certain narcissistic hyperbole that surrounds the simplest social encounters for this protagonist. She fails to grow or change throughout the novel, retreating always to the symbolic rye.
The daughter Ingrid in Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen is a startling contrast to Sonja as daughters go. The reader meets Ingrid as a child and watches her as she matures. While she is one of two central intelligences that coexist for much of the novel, she is the link that holds this multi-generational novel together. It is striking to see how much responsibility she assumes for her own family and the two children left in her care. The novel is a tribute to the virtue of hard work and the indomitable spirit that is honed by spartan living. What is really striking, moreover, is the simplicity of emotion in this Norwegian novel. Ingrid is peculiarly freed to experience life on her own terms without wagging the baggage of family neuroses. The novel suggests that there is something to be said by the romance of isolated island living. This novel is a breath of fresh air in its primitive relief from the troubled psyches of the other five novels shortlisted for the international prize.
Translation enables English-speaking readers to read each of the Booker International shortlist novels, but only one of these actually treats translation, albeit obliquely. Mirror. Shoulder. Signal by Dorthe Nors is told from the point of view of a translator of a Swedish mystery writer. Nors who writes essays in English and fiction in Danish is an accomplished multi-linguist. In fact, a reader of her essays or a listener to her BBC commentary might wonder why she needs someone else to translate her fiction into English, or what her judgment might be of the work of Misha Hoefstra who translated her shortlisted novel.
Further, the reader might wonder what Nor is up to in making her protagonist Sonja a translator by trade. Certainly, there is no commentary in the novel that would clarify this choice. Sonja frequently mentions her vocation but she never discloses the actual process. The reader never sees the translator at work. So, what can the reader infer? Is this tidbit of information window dressing? Is it simply a nod to the author’s undergraduate studies, her saturation in Swedish literature? Or is it a useful way to construct character? It does define Sonja in a number of ways. Sonja handles life in the same way a translator handles text. She prefers the distanced involvement of working with what others create. She prefers to reflect rather than participate.
Take Sonja’s regular massages, for example. One who avoids human touch in its emotional forms, Sonja yields her body to the professional’s teasing of the knots in her shoulder, the tightness in her body. After all, the work of a translator curries stiff shoulders, tenseness in the neck muscles. And while Ellen works on her body, Sonja deconstructs the professional’s quirky notions of the supernatural. It’s when Ellen invites her to a group hike/meditation that Sonja really stiffens. Everything in her experience resists the merging of worlds. It’s as though the Swedish page pulls her into its text, makes her a character in the novel she is translating. Sonja lacks the direct response of no, fumbles for the right words to translate the passage to her own intent. She starts the hike, but the call of nature gives her reason to turn back. Then, the dictates of a storm cause her to take a train back to Copenhagen. Ever the translator, she follows the lines of another plot, carefully merging her own point of view into the larger twists and turns of a novel she believes she is interpreting.
Distancia de Rescate is the Spanish title for Argentinian Samanta Scweblin’s novel, a current nominee for the Booker International Prize. I don’t know why Megan McDowell thought Fever Dream would be better as the title for her English translation of this novel or why she prefers rescue distance when she uses the repetitive phrase distance of rescue throughout the novel. These are translator decisions, and we have grown to accept them as part of the convention of translating. It’s fitting, I think, that the Booker International Prize is divided between author and translator, a tacit acknowledgment that translation makes a novel accessible, and that it is an art form in and of itself. It does leave an indelible stamp on the novel in ways the English reader cannot know. Things are lost in translation. That’s one of the limitations that non-linguists simply accept.
Certainly, Scweblin’s novel feels like a fever dream. From beginning to end, the reader fights to punch through the fog of fever, to separate the threads of reality from the illusions of dream. Because the reader is firmly grounded in reality beyond the page, she is freed to weigh the clues, to give herself to the understanding of alien experience. The magical realism of the novel provides its own artistic pleasure just as a good mystery rewards the reader with the would-be skills of detection.
Rescue distance is a concept from reality that sums up the invisible bond a mother always wants with her child. She always wants to be close enough to protect a child from harm. At the same time the term figures the ambiguity of distance, that wavering line that resists control. Try as she might, the protagonist is as powerless to protect the daughter within her own reach. The irony is the danger within reach.
While there is the perceived danger of chemically induced eco-imbalance in the novel, the desire to protect the child is the major focus. The varying manifestations of imbalance function metaphorically to embody danger. The death of ducks, dogs, horses, and the disfiguration of children is not nearly as damaging as the dehumanizing rupture of the soul, the fissure that renders everyone less than what he or she can be.
That the entire novel is told in an eerie conversation between two unlikely patients at the point of death is the device that gives this adventure of the mind its hold on the reader’s sensibilities. The newly afflicted adult is led by the prescient child whose understanding has been magnified in dissolution