“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.” (Nawal El Saadawi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.

Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”

Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:

“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”

His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:

“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”

But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.

“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”

Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.

“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”

[…]

“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”

Secondly, the short story collection She Has No Place in Paradise by Nawal El Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987) Set in Egypt, it is another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀

I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.

Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:

“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”

It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.

“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”

Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.

“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”

By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.

El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.

She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.

To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain:

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“Images are a way of writing. When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw, it seems a shame to choose one.” (Marjane Satrapi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

Throughout August I’m hoping to post entirely about women in translation, and this week I’m looking at two women who are famous animators as part of their writing.

Firstly, Tove Jansson, who was the creator of the Moomins.

Jansson also wrote novels for adults and Sort Of Books have done a great job making English translations available. The True Deceiver (1982, trans. Thomas Teal 2009) is a simple, unsettling tale set over a winter in a snowbound hamlet in Finland.

Katri Kling is a young woman in her 20s who lives with her brother Mats and her nameless Alsatian dog, keeping herself to herself.

“Every night I hear the snow against the window, the soft whisper of the snow blown in form the sea, and it’s good, I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally be clean…Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases to twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual.”

Meanwhile, Anna Aemelin is an animator who lives on the outskirts of the village. If Katrin seems old beyond her years, Anna has stayed somewhat infantalised despite now being quite old. She eats soft food out of tins, has a cleaner to take care of the huge house she’s lived in her whole life, and has no idea how to manage her money.

“Perhaps the reason people called Anna Aemelin nice was because nothing had ever forced her to exhibit malice, and because she had an uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things. She just shook them off and continued on her own vague but stubborn way. In fact, her spoiled benevolence was frightening, but no-one ever had time to notice.”

Katrin sets her sights on Anna’s house, and so the two women collide:

“That’s where she lives. Mats and I will live there too. But I have to wait. I need to think carefully before I give this Anna Aemelin an important place in my life.”

What follows is a study of the tense, odd relationship that these two women build together. They are both quite damaged in different ways, and they are both loners. Mats has an unspecified learning difficulty and so he operates outside of this dynamic; it is very much about the two women. Mats is Katrin’s motivation though, and they are close without communicating much to one another:

“They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward.”

This is not a story for those who like dramatic events and everything explained. What Jansson does expertly is portray these two women and the development of their relationship. She is entirely unsentimental – neither woman is particularly likeable – but the quiet, suffocating way she builds the story is compulsive.

“Anna walked faster, looking only down at the road. Several neighbours passed by, but she didn’t notice their greetings, just wanted to get home, home to the dreadful Katri, to her own altered world which had grown severe but where nothing was wicked and concealed.”

I really adore Jansson’s writing. It is beautiful but not overdone; pared down to its essence, she takes an incisive look at human relationships and never wastes a word. The True Deceiver is compelling and totally believable.

Secondly, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003, trans. Anjali Singh 2004). This is a graphic novel so please bear with me as I hardly ever read graphic novels and I’ve no idea how to write about it. Set in Iran, this is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Persepolis was made into a film in 2007 and uses the animation from the novel (it was co-written and co-directed by the author), so this trailer gives a good idea of the artwork:

Satrapi’s drawings are stark and simple in black and white and without excessive detail. As a result her images are incredibly strong and impactful, with nothing to distract from the central message each picture conveys.

The story is a powerful one. Marjane, born in 1970, grows up in tumultuous times in Iran. Her parents are liberal Marxists who allow their daughter a great deal of freedom, but after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 she has to wear a veil and be careful how she behaves in public. Young Marjane is religious and converses with God, but her favourite book is Dialectic Materialism where Marx and Descartes debate the meaning of the material world. “It was funny to see how much Marx and God looked liked each other. Though Marx’ hair was a bit curlier.”

Marjane learns about the history of her country and her family, having descended from Iran’s last emperor. Western culture appeals, while at the same time she knows that Britain conspired with the CIA in 1953 to depose Mossadeq after he nationalised the oil industry, to return the Shah to power (side note: when our previous Prime Minister Tony Blair was busy starting illegal wars in the Middle East, he had to be told who Mossadeq was, because he couldn’t understand Iranian hostility to Britain. I don’t even know where to begin with that.)

Her beloved uncle Anoosh is arrested and asks to Marjane for a final visit before he is executed. The scene where he holds her and calls her “Star of my Life” I found so moving. You can view it on Pintrest here (it’s really hard to write about a graphic novel without images! But I’m worried about copyright infringement ☹)

Persepolis follows Marjane as she leaves Iran for Austria, and her return four years later. We see her growing up, meeting boys, trying drugs, going to parties. She struggles to accept herself, feeling too Persian in Europe and too European in Iran. At times she loses her way, but always returns to her grandmother’s advice:

“There is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance…always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

Persepolis covers absolutely massive themes and is a remarkable achievement. International politics, religion, feminism, identity, social responsibility, extremism, idealism, familial love, are all here. The fact that it’s in graphic novel form mean that it never feels a heavy read and yet Persepolis doesn’t pull its punches or aim to make difficult truths easy for the reader. I’ve not remotely done it justice here.

To end, Marjane loves her hard-won Kim Wilde tape. Here’s the lovely lady herself aged 20, making her TOTP debut: