Dominique Eddé

Illustration by Hong-An Tran

'What is a novel?' Mali asked her students.

It was October 1968, shortly after she and Farid had broken up for the first time. She was teaching French that year at a government school in Beirut. She had been given a class of sixteen-year-olds, about sixty boys, most of whom were behind in their studies and had only a smattering of French since they were sitting their baccalaureate in Arabic. Their replies, hesitant at first, came thick and fast. Mali jotted them down. Running on from each other, they read as follows: the novel's a story that's long and wide; it's life but in a book; it's like my uncle who married my aunt without asking for permission; if you observe life carefully, the novel is all around us; it's a story that has a beginning and no end; it's an Arabian Nights; it's when love is a river that meets a dam; I've got a novel, Miss, it begins with some Russians; the novel is full of things that happen at the same time and we don't know why; a novel is so sad it makes you laugh; well, my father says that our defence minister is a novel all by himself; if a novel begins, there's no more rest, that's it; what happened between Abdo and Mohammed the day before yesterday's a novel; the novel's for the French, we Arabs have poetry; Miss, is my sister's death a novel? everyone has novels, there's no need to die; only Allah writes novels; I want to write a novel about Palestine, so that it stays somewhere.

One boy sitting at the back of the class had said nothing. Gazing out of the window, his arms folded, he looked not so much absent as irritated. Yet he was the only one who spoke French. Mali addressed him. 'Ali, I haven't heard anything from you. What is a novel?' He resisted. She insisted. 'It's a story someone tells,' he replied eventually, 'that's all.' 'Give us an example,' she answered, expecting him to give a book title and the name of an author, but that was not how he understood the question. This is what he replied:

It was a winter's day. The sun came and went. The clouds grew bigger. The whole sky was like a stormy sea. Abu Sami pushed his orange cart shouting,'Ten piastres a kilo!' The street was empty, no one could hear him but he paid no attention. He shouted, 'Ten piastres a kilo!' and dreamt of a woman he loved. The hands on the clock were turning, daylight was fading and the clouds were growing darker and darker still. The rain began to fall, the dust turned to mud and Abu Sami's dream came and went, like the sun, its light vanished, he could hardly see the face of the lady he loved. Abu Sami no longer had the strength to shout,'Ten piastres a kilo!' He trundled behind his orange cart in silence. Several oranges rolled off but he didn't pick them up. Just then, an American car pulled up beside him and a lady sitting in the back wound down her window to buy five kilos of oranges. He put the fifty piastres in his pocket and went home with his oranges. A neighbour was waiting for him on his doorstep. He said, 'I have bad news for you, Abu Sami, the dancer is dead.' The dancer was the woman who had been going round and round in his head while he walked. Her name was Camelia. He'd seen her once at Ain el Mraisseh in a cabaret called Chéri. Only once but he loved her.

'There, that's a novel,' grunted Sami, shrugging his shoulders. And as Mali, smiling, wrote down the closing sentences in a notebook, he added in a more conscious, even solemn, tone, 'Once is enough to kindle a dream and a cloud is enough to snuff it out but, for the person telling the story, the dream and the cloud can last a thousand years. The novel doesn't move like an ordinary watch, its hands can stop for an hour on a minute and for a second on twenty years. It's a machine that can gobble a life in two pages.'

translated from the French by Ros Schwartz

Used by permission of Seagull Books. Kite will be out in stores in Sep 2012.

Click here for more information about the book.

Read the original in French

Read the translation in Chinese, Traditional

Read translator’s note

Dominique Eddé was born in Beirut in 1953. A novelist and essayist, for many years she worked as a publisher in Paris, and then in Rome. As a literary critic and political commentator she has been a regular contributor to Le Monde des Livres and Revue d'Études Palestiniennes. In 1991, she commissioned six international photographers including Raymond Depardon, Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka to photograph the destroyed city of Beirut for a book entitled Beirut City-Center. She is the author of several novels notably Pourquoi il fait si sombre? (not yet translated into English) and Kite. Her most recent novel, Kamal Jann, to be published in English translation in 2013, deals with Syria and the Middle East through the story of one ill-fated family. She has published an essay on Jean Genet and conversations with the psychoanalyst André Green, and has written on the works of several photographers. She has also translated two works by Edward Said into French.

Ros Schwartz has over the last thirty years translated some sixty works of fiction and non-fiction from French, particularly Francophone writers such as Andrée Chedid, Aziz Chouaki, Fatou Diome and Dominique Eddé. Her new translation of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince was published in 2010. She co-translated Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti which won the 2008 Duncan Lawrie International Dagger award. In 2009 she was made a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her services to French literature. A Fellow of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and a previous chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Associations, she is currently chair of English PEN's Writers in Translation committee.

Francis Li Zhuoxiong is a critically acclaimed and platinum-record lyricist. Songs he has written include the 2012 Olympics song for China (sponsored by Coca Cola), the Chinese version of the 2010 FIFA World Cup song "Wavin' Flag," the theme song to the movies "Red Cliff I & II" (directed by John Woo), and the Karen Mok song "愛[Love]," which won him a Golden Melody Award for Best Lyrics in 2003. Francis Li Zhuoxiong was the subject of an interview in the Jan 2011 issue of Asymptote. Click here for his website.

Spanning the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, political unrest in Lebanon and the civil war that began in 1975, Kite is a novel about love against a backdrop of war. Contrary to the literary style of the Lebanese novel in vogue in the 1980s, Eddé does not dwell on descriptions of violence and atrocities, preferring to devote herself to a lucid, often ironic examination of the historical issues of a complex Middle East rife with conflict. Through the novel's fragmented structure, the author strives to express in fiction the collapse that calls into question an entire way of living and thinking.

In translating Eddé, I was keenly aware of an oriental sensibility underlying the French prose. The novel's structure―stories within stories, like a set of Russian dolls―contrasts sharply with the western linear narrative tradition, and has a very different feel from a work by a writer from mainland France. Eddé's writing is multilayered and multitextured, and rich in metaphor. She writes with exquisite elegance, and the translator's challenge is to preserve her very distinctive voice.

In general, translating from French requires us to concretize a great deal, since we Anglo Saxons are less comfortable with the abstract, and that is further challenged when confronting a whole other cultural tradition. I approach Eddé's writing with the expectation that I'll be thrown out of my comfort zone and need to be open to ambiguity, abstraction, impressionistic descriptions that operate on a poetic rather than prosaic level.

The act of translation could be described as negotiating the tension between meaning and music. For each text, the translator must decide which takes precedence. In the more lyrical, descriptive passages, music often has to predominate. I am also intensely conscious of the need to avoid domesticating the text, which is another form of colonisation, while aiming for a translation that is highly readable in English.

Ros Schwartz