Whether this March the leaves are falling or only starting to grow, new books in translation continue to push through borders and languages. This month, our editors review new translations from Germany and Lebanon, whose stories span diverse regions and explore complex notions of belonging.
Pearls on a Branch by Najla Jraissaty Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq, Archipelago Books
Reviewed by Anaka Allen, Social Media Manager
“It happened or maybe no.
If it did, it was long ago
If not, it could still be so.”
For twenty years, in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990, the traveling theater company Sandouk el Fergeh (the Box of Wonders) traversed the Levant searching for inspiration for their live shows. The actors and their marionettes would travel from shelters to refugee camps, villages to towns, performing the oral tales painstakingly collected by their founder Najla Jraissaty Khoury. It was no small feat trying to find and record stories during wartime when suspicion and fear were particularly acute, not to mention the difficulty in assembling complete narratives from a depleting cache of collective cultural memory.
Oral tales are one of the most fragile cultural legacies, and too often die with their storytellers. So, what happens to the oral history of a region suffering through war and displacement? That’s what Khoury hoped to find out, and the question is what inspired her to embark on a rescue mission in search of these unwritten remnants of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian culture. She collected dozens of folktales, writing them down exactly as they were told (repetitive phrases and all), culled one hundred from that catalog, and published them in Arabic. English speakers now have the opportunity to read a selection of thirty stories in Pearls on a Branch.
Comic, unique, and at times provocative, this collection represents an important addition to the canon of historical folktales and contributes a new cast of morally ambiguous mythological and animal characters, with the added bonus of intriguing female figures. Readers can’t help but be reminded of Snow White and her gang of merry miners, and may inadvertently search for other common threads, when delving into “O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend!” But they will be pleasantly surprised and delighted by the Arabic counterpart’s twists and departures where Pomegranate-Seed-on-a-Platter, with the help of Ali Baba and his forty thieves, triumphs over her mother who has succumbed to a jinn’s seductive praise. In addition to stories of victorious beauties, there’s a selection of Aesop-like fables recounting creature adventures in the moralistic “Abu Ali the Fox” or “Who Ate the Wheat.” This exceptional anthology provides options for every reader, young and old, to enjoy.
Until the end of the last century, Levantine women were confined to their homes in deference to the customs of a male-dominated society. As a form of entertainment, after the day’s work had been done and the children sent off to bed, they would gather to spin these yarns of bravery and survival, of women who triumphed over foolish men and used their beauty and their wit to maneuver themselves out of dire circumstances. These are Scheherazade’s sisters, guardians of Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian folktales told by women, for women, of heroines who endure and finally succeed by their displays of courage and are celebrated for their boldness just as often as for their incredible ability to suffer in silence.
There are many figures to admire in Pearls on a Branch, and the translator must be counted among them. Inea Bushnaq’s challenge to transform the naturally flexible Arabic into the more rigid English could have resulted in a wooden and ungainly translation, but her interpretation elegantly retains the lyricism of the collection. Her preservation of a sense of the original’s rhythmic quality, more than making up for the loss of wordplay and rhyme, achieves the impossible—rendering the written audible, enough to hear generations of female voices calling out, inviting you to sit and listen to their timeless tales.
The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by Silke Scheuermann, translated from the German by Lucy Jones, Seagull Books
Reviewed by Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor
I cannot remember the protagonist’s name. Later, I realize she was never given a name. The narrator’s sister; the sister’s boyfriend; the previous occupant of the narrator’s apartment whose voicemail message the narrator retains in her landline; every character who makes an appearance at least twice—all have names, identities that make their way into the reader’s memory. Except the narrator herself. The nameless narrator—the negated identity—is the story.
Having recently moved back to Frankfurt from Rome, the narrator, a young, single woman, runs into her older, prettier sister, whom she wants to avoid. It is not mere dislike or distrust that lies between the siblings, but a blunt detachment. The novel follows the narrator and her world in her words, a cold recital of the unfeeling.
In the first few pages, I keep looking for signs of the place the novel is set in, Frankfurt. But it could have been Chicago or Paris or London, any city in the world with a relentless cold winter. This lack of geographic markers and history lays the stage for the protagonist’s alienated existence. She watches everything and everyone around her, with a perpetual ennui.
Directly related to this question of place in the novel is the question of belonging, or not belonging, when it comes to people, places, and feelings. The narrator muses that “a few weeks elsewhere and the images of people and everyday places that were your life until recently start to fade,” hinting at a fragmented existence that makes a certain rootedness impossible, a condition familiar to us modern nomads of economic circumstances, constantly on the move, overthrowing and re-assembling our lives. The narrator comes across an ancient-looking, wrinkled old woman being photographed for a public ad campaign that is meant “to make people aware that the eyewitnesses to German history are dying out.” Such encounters tug at the narrator’s estranged world. How could we have come to a juncture when the people of a country that almost single-handedly decided the fate of the twentieth-century world don’t have a sense of history and place anymore? She reflects, “People seem to move swiftly in and out all over Frankfurt, first living together, then moving back to their own places. People in Rome were more sensible . . . they weren’t as quick to leave or exchange the space they’d managed to inhabit.” This echoes another modern syndrome, exaggerated by social media, that everybody else is happier, other places seem better than here.
The narrator doesn’t feel joy or fear, nor does she express any curiosity, about others and events around her or her own life. After the narrator sleeps with her sister Ines’s boyfriend, she cries. But even the tears and the sadness are performative, a feeling she thinks she should express, rather than a real emotion she can immediately place. Even sexual desire is pallid, “a desire to forget.” At a forced dinner, Ines’s acquaintance Rebecca tells the narrator that she watches horror films because they make her “feel something in this world in which everyone had become completely numb.” Juxtaposed with Ines’s obsession—alcohol—Rebecca’s own obsession of horror films seems to be just another case of substance abuse, an attempt to distract from the numbness.
In this debut novel by Silke Scheuermann, without feeling dictated to, I am aware of the writer’s intentions on every page, what she wants me, her reader, to feel. It is neither manipulation nor a display of tacky craft, but the skill of a writer who can show you the world she wishes to share with you without devious obscurity. This is a surprising feat for a writer who started out as, and still is, a poet.
The translated text, by Lucy Jones, is sparsely punctuated, with minimal distinctions between thought and dialogue. This allows the narrator to discard ownership over her thoughts, words and actions, further underlining the theme of alienation. Initially, the writing has an intentionally monotonous rhythm, the sentences a simple structure, characteristic of a listless voice, but it eventually builds up a breathless pace in sync with the narrator’s evolving, tumultuous emotions. Consider, for example, this simple line in the very beginning: “I’d never noticed before how passive sitting could be,” and this sentence, from the very end:
And in this magical forest under radiant trees whose leaves seemed to give light instead of shade, it felt as if it had only been yesterday since everything had changed so much; in fact, it seemed quite possible that right here, right now, everything could change again and we, Ines and I, could somehow straighten out our lives, behind which something like happiness, as a system of coordinates, would shine through, a junction of events, thoughts and relations which we would always be able to fall back on; and I believed it right then—for some reason, I believed it.
As the novel draws to a close, winter gives way to spring, and the narrator’s numbness slowly gives way to a feeling, a stirring of love for her sister. It isn’t coincidental that the novel concludes in lush green woods—which first enthralls the narrator, then scares her with its overpowering denseness, finally evoking a tenderness in the protagonist for her older sister, who is crying by then like a child. Though it is left unsaid, the narrator is perhaps reminded of the little joys in life she had lost, in the search for some abstract, elusive meaning of existence.
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