on my review of mourid barghouti’s i was born there… in today’s Independent

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MB by Rex Features The Independent
Horror, and happiness: Mourid Barghouti ( Rex Features )

I Was Born There, I Was Born Here,

By Mourid Barghouti, trans. Humphrey Davies

GUY MANNES-ABBOTT | FRIDAY 04 NOVEMBER 2011

 

Mourid Barghouti’s first volume of memoir, I Saw Ramallah, is a classic of the genre and a uniquely clear-eyed account of returning home after 30 years of serial expulsion. Barghouti is also the poet of displacement in general as well as its specific Palestinian form. In between the first and this second volume of memoir came Midnight & Other Poems – a first selection from many volumes of his poetry.

I Saw Ramallah wove a life of enforced absences into a moment of return to that city and the author’s home village of Deir Ghassanah in 1996, with prose of poetic concision. It ended with Barghouti recrossing an indelibly memorialised bridge over the Jordan river to collect a permit for his son Tamim, so they could return together. “He will see it. He will see me in it, and we shall ask all the questions after that.”

I Was Born… is that collection of “questions” Continue reading “on my review of mourid barghouti’s i was born there… in today’s Independent”

on the biting wisdom of poets [two], mahmoud darwish

Mahmoud Darwish Absent Presence Hesperus CoverMine is a very short review in today’s Independent [in which you can also read Robert Fisk direct from al Tahrir Square, Cairo!] but then it’s a very short book and I couldn’t pretend that length diminished this version (in Mohammed Shaheen’s translation) of Darwish’s Absent Presence!

I’ve quoted Mahmoud Darwish’s own use of the word “baffling”, below. What is truly baffling is that in English there are almost as many translators as editions of his books. A lesser voice would have been neutered by this, but Darwish is a national writer on a par with any nation and simply deserves better.

 

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Absent Presence,

By Mahmoud Darwish

Lessons in life from the great divide

Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Monday, 31 January 2011

Mahmoud Darwish was a giant of world literature.

This elegant edition of the last completed work before the Palestinian poet’s death in 2008 makes clear why. Absent Presence is a huge little book which defies conventional categorisation. It offers costly wisdoms Continue reading “on the biting wisdom of poets [two], mahmoud darwish”

on radwa ashour’s spectres/atyaaf, in today’s independent

Radwa Ashour Spectres The Independent

Spectres (Atyaaf),

By Radwa Ashour

Trans Barbara Romaine

Pleased to see my very short review, shortened further to fit, of Spectres in today’s Independent: “Personal, Political and Painful” [UPDATE see below for full original review & an update from MW’s obituary for Radwa].

It ends;

Spectres combines invention, unofficial history and human abyss in an elliptical novel in which Ashour articulates an ethics rooted in Arabian and ancient Egyptian cultures. The result transforms a bleak constellation into a quietly stirring beacon. Spectres provides an irresistible companion to Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, and a contrast to Elias Khoury’s more traditional Gate of the Sun. Spectres is a boldly original novel by an important writer whose exemplary work we need more of in English.”

I had a little more to say, but would only add now that the companionship with those two titles was predicated crucially on the words, “in translation”, thus referring to the disgracefully small pool of Arabic writing yet in English. As it stands it might be read as a weird and old-fashioned kind of valorisation, no? The word “demanding” has also gone from elsewhere, and again, I only mention it because though it’s indubitably great to see the novel celebrated in The Independent, it is the best of things; a demanding read in more ways than one.

My similarly tiny review of the Mahmoud Darwish’s rivetingly demanding Absent Presence (in the Mohammad Shaheen translation) will appear in due course… (UPDATE 2018: clean link here.)

Continue reading “on radwa ashour’s spectres/atyaaf, in today’s independent”

no settling for occupation, palestine 2010

Under the kind of Occupation that Palestinians have been for decades there is literally no room for manoeuvre, very few forms of resistance. A new P.A. law banning the sale of Settlement produce -and Palestinians to work in the Settlements by 2011- is a difficult yet undeniable achievement. The difficulty is that working within these illegal zones [42% of the ‘west bank’ and rising] has been a scarce source of income for those imprisoned in the Palestinian hills.

There are many things wrong with the P.A., here is one thing they’ve got right. My own recent realisation that most of what is possible to eat in occupied Palestine is prison food -controlled/supplied by the Occupation- was mortifying and underscores why this ban is a difficult one to make and sustain. Outside occupied Palestine, it’s the easiest thing in the world to boycott the fruits of this uniquely chronic and brutal Occupation. It’s dead simple; do you want to be sustained by crimes against your  -or your children’s- own humanity?

Continue reading “no settling for occupation, palestine 2010”

ghassan kanafani ‘men in the sun’; brilliant writing [not] banned in the uk

Wondering about Kanafani’s book today, I checked yet again to see if it’s in print at all and specifically in the UK. (Updated links Mar2018)

I was wrong to describe it [earlier] as out of print, since it’s available in the US from Lynne Rienner Publishers here. LRP do have a London office too; the two Kanafani books I link to below are available from their UK distributors here. [I’m correcting my original post which criticised the lack of an equivalent British publisher. Does it matter in our cowardly new world? I think it does actually, yes.]

Men in the Sun [Rijal fi-al-shams [1962/3] was one of the first books by a Palestinian writer I read; entry point, beginning. I admired it first time up but wasn’t able to get a real hold on it or place it in a wider [Palestinian] literature.

I expect that this is a common experience in general, although if Mourid Barghouti‘s classic memoir I Saw Ramallah is a similar entry point for many today -as anecdotal experience suggests- the effect will also differ. MB’s book is more self-contained in this sense, its brilliant opening chapter The Bridge carries the voice of these men in the sun [amongst many others and much else] back home. Readers familiar with both will, I hope, forgive the purposive crudity of such an analogy.

I re-read Men in the Sun recently in a slim and very simply produced Heinemann/Three Continents Press edition [it first arrived in English in American University of Cairo Press, AUC, whose excellent back- and ongoing list is emerging through the wonderful Arabia Books in the UK] I was almost shocked by just how good it is; beautifully spare prose, precise and haunting altogether and, so far as I can tell, very well translated by Hilary Kilpatrick.

So why did I have to rely on the British Library to read it? I ask the question still even though my persisting with it did elicit a link to its blameless distributor in London through its entirely admirable publisher based in Boulder, Colorado. I leave it to you to decide or tell me whether it makes any difference…

Continue reading “ghassan kanafani ‘men in the sun’; brilliant writing [not] banned in the uk”

puttermesser is dead; cynthia foster wallace (nee) ozick is 92

Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers was published in 1999 in the UK and short-listed for the IMPAC Award (Updated Apr2018) aka the Dublin Lit Award. I see that when David Foster Wallace read his HB copy he noted some of the same words [as news of his papers arriving at the HRC Texas reveal] as I did. Tellurian, for example. I’m posting two images that speak for themselves and a light-weight review I wrote for The New Statesman during a divertingly busy year. Within a few months, the tanks had re-entered occupied territories shattering any last delusions/illusions.

I remain a fierce reader and admirer of Ozick’s work, despite her quixotic blindness towards/repellant views about Palestinian dispossession -which obviously undermines her fondness for exception and the you-can’t-be-entirely-serious rhetoric around “winners”. I was re-reading The Messiah of Stockholm in late December 2008 [trapped again, wrestling with her singular sentences], just before the white phosphorus went in to Gaza’s already besieged schools and, even now, am re-reading the essays collected in The Din in the Head [2006]. Fortunately, the cold obscenity of what she wrote in the same year about Rachel Corrie’s Journals (link to myth-busting re RC not CO’s toxic piece) is not included.

Ozick is a curious and extreme instance of a vexatious problem and in posting this I’m forcing myself to come back to it, soon (not yet; Apr 2018!). Nothing I say will reduce the brilliance (in every sense and so its own limit) of this novel and others because writerly singularity outplays historical anomaly however grotesque the views. At least, on the billionth loop around it, that is what I feel, but I know the ice is very thin hereabouts (hmmm and hmmm again and again). Meanwhile, roll on the day that nakba-denial is also a crime and when universal crimes already constituted are actually prosecuted.

Puttermesser Paper, Cynthia Ozick

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

July 1999

Like an eager parliamentarian, I should confess my ‘interests’ in this new novel of Cynthia Ozick’s. My 7 year old cat is named after Ruth Puttermesser -lawyer, Mayoress and murderee- the heroine of these stories. I’ve also got form, having greeted the publication of her 1993 collection of essays What Henry James Knew with extravagant polemic in these same pages. I was championing her astonishing stylistic precision, singular appetites and general awkward brilliance. I don’t retract a word.

If you don’t know Ozick, you’ll find an infectious deep mining and celebration of writing, ranging from the thunder of James and Bellow to the lightning of Bruno Schultz and JM Coetzee, in her essays. In them she animates the Classics and invests her fascination with mystical Judaism to great effect, just as she does in her short and long fiction. All of this is apparent in The Puttermesser Papers which, if you do know Ozick, you’ll recognise as a cycle of stories from the last 20 years. The Puttermesser Papers earnt substantial praise when it was published in the United States in 1997 and was nominated for the 1999 IMPAC Award. Such recognition came late to Ozick and remains incomplete while novels like The Messiah of Stockholm are still unavailable here.

So, what is it about Ozick? Well, it’s difficult to convey the astonishing fecundity of this novel in summary. There’s just so much in it, for one thing; all condensed into a swiftly flowing stream of exquisitely placed words. But this is not writing for swooners because Ozick means what she writes. She’s serious, high minded and literary in that sense and yet her’s is a gleeful kind of seriousness.

We first meet Ruth Puttermesser as a 46 year old lawyer in the New York Mayor’s office. She’s insistent that her married lover, Morris Rappaport, allows her to finish Plato’s Theaetetus before they have sex. The previous night she’d read him a line of Socrates, defending the enquirer’s mind “for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.” This is typical of Ozick; to begin a story with a quote like that, but also for the quote to be one expressive of unbounded yearning.

Puttermesser goes on to lose her job unfairly and to conjure a female golem into being who becomes her peculiarly loyal public servant; successfully campaigning for Puttermesser to become Mayor. As Mayor she establishes a paradisal realm in Manhattan for a while until Xanthippe the golem does what golems do and runs amok. So with Puttermesser’s reputation and the city in ruins Xanthippe is dispatched back to the earth from where she came.

We next meet Puttermesser in her mid-50s as she falls in and out of love, through a filter of the life and work of George Eliot which is, I promise, no less vivid for that.  Eventually we witness the aged Puttermesser being murdered and then raped, in that order, after which she describes life in paradise -where the quality of timelessness proves bitterly disappointing.

Ozick’s insistent awkwardness is her great attraction for me. She does things writers of fiction are not supposed to do, like giving dismissive summaries of plot which “must be recorded as lightly and swiftly as possible.” She also tells you things in a spirit of enthusiastic sharing, so you end this book knowing all about golems, for instance. There is the Prague golem as a protector of the Jews but also the earlier mystical golem conjured out of nothing but unformed matter. This latter quality of blooming impossibility is also her work’s great strength.

Puttermesser embodies notions of Jewish as well as American redemptiveness and utopianism. Ozick writes, “Puttermesser craved. Her craving was to cleanse the wilderness … of injustice”. She is encouraged in this by Xanthippe’s notes saying things like; “No reality greater than thought.” She is the kind of retired Mayoress whose tea bags come with Nietzschean aphorisms saying “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Before retiring she’d dreamt about appointing PB Shelley, to honour his principle that “poets are the legislators of mankind.”

These are not exactly belly laughs but there are plenty of smiles in The Puttermesser Papers. However both Ozick and her heroine are yearners for ideas and a better world. Yet if this book is an embodiment of that yearning, it is a kind of visceral, sexy tango of yearning -strange as it sounds. It’s this crazy exuberance along with her singular style that makes me recommend this book to you in the way that I would recommend Kafka or Calvino, Jean Rhys or Virginia Woolf.