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Robyn Creswell: Arabic Rhetoric Gets an Acid Bath

March 12, 2013

The Paris Review editor on his new translation of That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim.

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Image from Flickr via Frank Schulenburg

That Smell is the disquieting anti-narrative of a man in the days after he’s been released from prison. Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim wrote it in the mid-1960s not long after serving his own prison sentence for Communist activities. The book follows its unnamed narrator through the streets of Cairo as he balks at re-assimilating to daily life. We see him smoke, masturbate, sit near the women’s car on the train so he can ogle commuters, fail to have sex with a prostitute, endure daily curfew visits by the police, and spend a grim night in a holding cell. Not much else happens, but the work is darkly enlivening. It courses with a muted energy that can be variously interpreted: the frustration of the revolutionary in the wake of the cause’s defeat, the anxiety of the writer in search of subject, and—most obviously—the culture shock of the long-time prisoner, newly released.

Robyn Creswell—author of a new translation of That Smell, Poetry Editor of The Paris Review, and an associate professor of comparative literature at Brown University—told me, via email interview, that he tried to convey the novel’s “strangeness.” This strangeness arises in part from a spare, stripped-down style that takes cues from Hemingway and represents a break from the Arabic literary establishment’s style at the time. Ibrahim discovered Hemingway and other Western modernists during his time behind bars—a time that Creswell told me served as a kind of “MFA program” for him. Creswell also explained how he came to include, as an appendix to the novel, a selection of Ibrahim’s prison journal, which resembles a reading diary, detailing the writer’s encounters with literary greats via books smuggled in by the prison guards.

Today, in addition to this interview, Guernica Daily is running an excerpt from Ibrahim’s “Notes from Prison” paired with illustrations by Nathaniel Flagg.

That Smell and Notes from Prison will be published by New Directions on March 22.

Reed Cooley for Guernica

Guernica: Sonallah Ibrahim has a number of works that haven’t been translated into English. How did you decide on That Smell, which was previously translated?

Robyn Creswell: I’ve always thought That Smell was Ibrahim’s best work. When the novel was published in the mid-sixties, Egyptian readers were shocked. Critics complained about the sex scenes (which are actually pretty chaste), but I think what really disturbed them was the style. Ibrahim gave Arabic rhetoric an acid bath. He stripped the language down to its bones—he got rid of metaphor, he refused to use fancy words. It’s a completely uncompromising book, and for me its bleakness is weirdly exhilarating. I think the previous English translation, which has been out of print for a long time, didn’t do justice to the novel’s strangeness. That’s what I wanted to convey in my own version.

Guernica: Can you tell me about the title? Yours is a more literal translation than “The Smell of It” (the title of the first English translation).

It’s clear from the diary entries that Ibrahim thought of his stripped-down idiom as a mode of truth-telling. It’s a way of recording “what you see and hear,” as Hemingway puts it in The Green Hills of Africa.

Robyn Creswell: I don’t know if it’s more literal. I suppose it’s less literary, which is what I was getting at.

Guernica: How did you come to include “Notes from Prison” in this edition?

Robyn Creswell: “Notes from Prison,” is a selection of entries from a diary Ibrahim kept in prison in the early sixties, before he was a published writer. He was arrested along with most other Egyptian communists in 1959, and he served a five-year term in a place called Wahat, in the southern desert. Ibrahim wrote the entries in notebooks, then transferred them to cigarette papers so he could smuggle them out. The diary was published in Cairo in 2004 and I found it in my favorite downtown bookshop, Madbouli’s. It struck me that the “Notes” were essentially a laboratory of ideas for That Smell. They’re not so much a record of daily life in prison as they are a reader’s diary. The prisoners in Wahat read a lot of books, actually, which they bribed the guards to deliver: Virginia Woolf, Soviet poetry, the nouveau roman. Prison was Ibrahim’s MFA program. I thought that by translating some of the diary, I could give readers of the novel a way to understand what Ibrahim thought he was up to. This is something translators are always worried about: how to give readers a context for what they’re reading without cluttering up the story with footnotes. I thought the “Notes” provided a neat solution to this problem.

Guernica: You note that many of Ibrahim’s influences were works in translation—Hemingway, Joyce, Yevtushenko. How was this important to his break with the Egyptian and Arabic literature of his time?

Robyn Creswell: I think Ibrahim’s reading of Hemingway was crucial, and he’s said as much himself. The minimalism of his style owes a lot to Hemingway’s example. It’s clear from the diary entries that Ibrahim thought of his stripped-down idiom as a mode of truth-telling. It’s a way of recording “what you see and hear,” as Hemingway puts it in The Green Hills of Africa. This is an ethic Ibrahim has kept faith with in everything he’s written since. But I’m not sure “influence” is the right word. It seems too passive to describe what Ibrahim is doing. He takes what he needs and discards the other stuff (Hemingway’s macho posturing, for instance, is wholly foreign to Ibrahim’s way of thinking). Probably the fact that he was indeed reading many of these writers in translation—and often in excerpted form—meant that he approached them with a healthy lack of piety. He didn’t worry about whether Hemingway and Yevtushenko were compatible. He just grabbed what he needed. Style is always an experiment; Ibrahim was doing bricolage.

Guernica: You said you tried to keep Hemingway’s influence in mind as you worked; it was a feature you found lacking in the previous English translation. Was it necessary to revisit particular works of Hemingway? Or was it a matter of being truer to Ibrahim’s prose?

Robyn Creswell: I did re-read The Green Hills and some of the short stories set in Africa, since those were the works Ibrahim notes in his diary. It’s a rather random selection, since mostly he was just reading whatever the prison guards brought back from their leaves in Cairo. And I tried to keep in mind the elasticity of Hemingway’s sentences and paragraphs, the way he shifts between a hard-boiled staccato and the longer, lyrical stretches. I think that elasticity is there in the Arabic, too, and it relies on some of the same syntactical tools—lots of conjunctions, for instance.

I can’t really be bothered with trying to challenge stereotypes; I leave that job to Hollywood. Every translator aims to inject new matter into our cultural DNA, but you have to follow your passions.

Guernica: In your introduction to That Smell, you note that people of Ibrahim’s political ilk shared prisons with the Muslim Brotherhood in the ’50s and ’60s. How is leftist literature in Egypt faring now that a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood is in power?

Robyn Creswell: They shared the prisons but they didn’t socialize. There’s no love lost between Egyptian Communists and Islamists, despite a common history of persecution. Nasser imprisoned them and Sadat used the Brotherhood to run leftists off university campuses. Judging by his fiction, Ibrahim has nothing but contempt for the Brotherhood, whom he thinks of as capitalists with beards. Nobody knows what Morsi intends to do now that the Brotherhood is in power, certainly not what his cultural policy will be. It’s probably the last thing on his mind.

Guernica: It seems that far fewer Arabic writers are translated to English (or perhaps the translations circulate less widely) than those who write in, say, French or Spanish. Why do you think that is?

Robyn Creswell: The network of publishers, translators, and reviewers is less developed for Arabic literature than for French or Spanish. But that’s beginning to change. Edward Said wrote an article in 1990 called “Embargoed Literature,” where he scolded American publishers for their lack of interest in anything written in Arabic not by Naguib Mahfouz. 9/11 changed all that, frankly. There are excellent small houses, like Archipelago Books and New Directions, that have produced good translations from the Arabic. Poets like Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish are published by major presses; Ala al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building was an international bestseller; and NYU’s Library of Arabic Literature is trying to do for classical Arabic literature what Loeb once did for the Greek and Latin. The culture of reviewing lags behind, I think. There are some great blogs, particularly M. Lynx Qualey’s ArabLit, and magazines like Bidoun, but the big reviewing outlets give very little space to Arabic literature, or to any literature in translation. Part of the problem, of course, is that most large book reviews are getting smaller and less adventuresome.

Guernica: The more major Arabic translation projects you’ve chosen—That Smell and Copious Figures on the Harbingers of Happiness—offer stories that don’t fit Western stereotypes of the Arab world as socially backward and conservative. In taking on these projects, did you have an interest in encouraging a more nuanced view of the cultures of the writers you were translating?

Robyn Creswell: I can’t really be bothered with trying to challenge stereotypes; I leave that job to Hollywood. Every translator aims to inject new matter into our cultural DNA, but you have to follow your passions. Translation takes me a long time; I need to enjoy what I’m working on rather than feel like it’s a duty, however well intentioned. “Copious Figures,” which I haven’t yet translated, is a ninth century treatise on wine, by a bon vivant who was also Caliph-for-a-day and one of the great classical literary critics. It tells you what sorts of wine there are—yellow, black, red, and white—what vessels to use when drinking them, what sort of hangover to expect and what the best cure is. It also conjures some savvy arguments for why drinking wine isn’t actually forbidden by Islamic law. Maybe a book like that works against American stereotypes, but it’s also pretty fun to read.

Reed Cooley is an Editorial Assistant for Guernica Daily.

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