“Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Oh dear, my blogging mojo is taking a while to get back. It’s been weeks since I read these two short story collections for Women in Translation Month and I’m only writing this now. Given that I find writing about short story collections difficult at the best of times, I beg your indulgence, Reader…

Firstly, Dark Paradise by Rosa Liksom (1989 trans. David McDuff, 2007) which I picked up having greatly enjoyed Compartment No.6 back in 2016. This was a dark, violent collection of stories, split into two sections, Domestic and Foreign. The stories are not titled otherwise and are very short, frequently only a few pages, with unnamed narrators describing their extreme actions in a matter-of-fact voice. Hence I’m going to have to give a trigger warning for descriptions of violence and blood.

In the first story, a woman locks herself in her bedroom after the death of her husband:

“She took a heavy vase from the floor and threw it at the mirror which shattered into large and small pieces. The shards cut her all over. Some of the wounds were deep – they gaped and spurted blood. The sheets were stained red, her body throbbed, and the blood smelled of something old and oppressive.”

This is a choice image to begin the collection, as it captures what is in store: sharp, fragmentary glimpses into violent and unhinged worlds. Unlike the first story, many that follow are told in the first person. A woman who viscerally hates her husband of two weeks; a man who obsessively cleans his flat; a social outcast who lives with his mother:

“It all started some time before my eighth birthday. I was lounging in an armchair in the parlour watching Mom make dinner in the kitchen. That was the first time the realisation came to me. I got this terrible nauseous feeling, a flash of lightening cut right through my brain and Mom suddenly looked to me like some sort of mutant, a caricature of a human being. I know that’s when it started, and the years have only made it clearer to me that even then, as a little kid, I was one hundred percent correct: I hate all women.”

There are some brief glimpses of light. Not every encounter ends in violence, though most do, and there are some affectionate relationships, like the woman and her daughter who are chocoholics:

“Then I walk home and my daughter is back, she’ll have had three mugs of cocoa and a package of chocolate biscuits. She eats chocolate too, and biscuits, and potato chips. I’ve hardly had time to get the door open when she’s shouting for chocolate. But she has to wait until I’ve taken off my coat and sat down in front of the TV. Then I give her one of the bars and take the other for myself. We watch TV, eat chocolate and occasionally I have a cigarette.”

Liksom is such an accomplished writer. In just a few lines she establishes character, tone, setting. She’s sparse and uncompromising. This is not the collection to read when you’re feeling fragile or want characters to root for, but if you feel like being pummelled into nihilistic despair for about an hour (and sometimes I do, sometimes I want a truly destabilising read) then this is for you.

Secondly, Death of an Ex-Minister by Nawal el-Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987). I first looked at el-Saadawi’s work for WITMonth 2018 and then again this year when I was undertaking Novella a Day in May, and I’m always so impressed by how she weaves her politics into stories that never suffer under the weight of the issues she’s addressing: often corruption, the role of women, and sexuality.

The titular story has a government employee talking to his mother as silent interlocutor, about a junior colleague that has incurred his ire:

“But I was angry Mother, because when she talked to me she raised her eyes to mine in a way I’d never seen before. Such a gaze, such a strong and steady look, is daring in itself, even impudent, when it comes from a man. So what if it comes from an employee, a woman? I wasn’t angry because she did it, but because I didn’t know how she did it, how she dared do it.”

I thought this was such a clever way to explore a man realising that he has been a cog in machine, a subservient bureaucrat, and send him spiralling into crisis.

In The Veil, el-Saadawi deals with female sexual desire completely unabashed:

“My eyes fall on to his naked body and hairy thighs once more. The expression on my face, as I look at his body, is not the same when I look into his eyes, for my problem is that what I feel inside shows instantly on my face. His eyes are the only part of his body with which I have real contact. They dispel strangeness and ugliness and make my relationship with him real in the midst of numerous unreal ones.”

She always has plenty to say but is never preachy and often has an underlying humour. The tone in Masculine Confession (another silent female interlocutor, this time a sex worker) is wry:

“I loved my masculinity and from the start I realised it was the reason for my being privileged. I always had to prove its existence, declare it, show it to people to make it clear and visible and that it was not open to doubt […] I love my wife like I love my mother, with the same sort of spiritual, holy love. In other words, a love in which I take everything and to which I give nothing. That’s ideal love.”

In Camera is perhaps the most powerful and tender, where a young woman accused and tortured by the state is watched in a courtroom by her family:

“I feel the air when it touches you and hunger when it grips you. Your pain is mine, like fire burning in my breast and stomach. God of Heaven and Earth, how did your body and mine stand it? But I couldn’t have stood it were it not for the joy of you being my daughter, of having given birth to you. And you can raise your head high above the mountains of filth.”

Death of an Ex-Minister captures a variety of voices finding their way in late twentieth century Egypt. El-Saadawi is all the more powerful because of her compassion – she writes about flawed humans, fighting, loving, scared and brave. Her characters are always believable and always compelling.

To end, a move that will shock regular readers of this blog to their core: I’m going to end on some tasteful music for once 😀 Stunning harmonies from singers of traditional Finnish Sami music:

“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: