10 - 16 June 1999
Issue No. 433
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Two Moroccan writers set out from Fez and arrived in Paris. But they took two different paths, and speak two different languages
Le Maroc explained
L'Auberge des pauvres, (The Inn of the Poor), Tahar Ben Jelloun, Auberge des pauvres, 1999. pp294
A summer to be reckoned with
Mithl Seif lan Yatakarar: Mahkiyyat (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated: Narratives), Mohamed Berrada, Casablanca: Dar Al-Fenac, 1999. pp235
Better than more
Al-Tanwir Al-Za'if (False Enlightenment), Galal Amin, Cairo: Iqraa' series, Dar Al-Maaref, February 1999. pp151
The canary sings to himself
Dhalik Al-Janib Al-Akhar (That Other Side), Hassan Soliman, Cairo: General Organisation for Culture Palaces, Aswat Adabiya Series, May 1999. pp195
How very high society
The Egyptian Upper Class Between Revolutions: 1919-1952, Magda Baraka, St Antony's Middle East Monographs Series, Ithaca Press, 1998. pp328
A movable feast
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 Vols.), Vol.1 , edited by Carl F. Petry, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp645
Terms of conversion
Islam in Britain: 1558-1685, Nabil Matar, Cambridge University Press. 1998. pp297
The movement of the waters
As he approaches his eighth decade, José Sarney can look back on a varied and distinguished career. He is best known outside his native Brazil as the first president to lead the country following the overthrow of the military junta in 1985. A lawyer by training, his true vocation however is literature. Unlike those politicians who turn to writing late in life as a distraction or a recreation, Sarney has been making stories since his earliest years. With his novel, O Dono do Mar (The Master of the Sea), his fame as an artist seems set to spread beyond Latin America. A best-seller in the original Portuguese, the work has now been translated into Arabic. Injy El-Kashef spoke to the author while he was in Cairo to launch the book, which she reviews here
God is here, and the devil with him
Sayed Al-Bihar (O Dono do Mar, The Master of the Sea), José Sarney, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1999, pp323
At a glance:
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
The canary sings to himselfReviewed by Youssef Rakha
Hassan Soliman, the Egyptian art scene's most celebrated enfant terrible, also happens to be one of its most articulate exponents. His commentaries on his own and other artists' work rarely fail to strike home, even if they are delivered in the self-indulgent tone which has typified his voice throughout half a century of uninterrupted creativity. Idiosyncratic and eclectic, Soliman can be as challenging a writer as he is a painter, but his fragmentary ruminations, though persuasive and poetic, are seldom as lucid as one would expect. "In order for the canary to sing," he maintains at the beginning of this uniquely individualistic volume, "it must first be alone." And, true to form, the existential canary which occupies centre stage in these autobiographical dramas remains solitary to the end, even though it purports to engage in an endless series of colloquies.
First published in Damascus in 1996, Dhalik Al-Janib Al-Akhar is only now being made widely available for the first time. Though it passed practically unnoticed for these last three years, on second printing it has received its due share of curiosity. Ostensibly a selection of European poetry in translation, the book juxtaposes Soliman's choice of shorter poems with the journals he kept at the time he was translating them -- a visceral investigation into the artistic and personal dilemmas confronting an ageing iconoclast at a time of intense rediscovery.
The book's true subject is the essential indivisibility of the artist/poet/creator -- an ambiguously Promethean figure to whom female possessiveness constitutes an ongoing threat -- and the resplendent works of art he aspires to create, as well as the consequent contradiction which Soliman perceives between art and love. Meanwhile the tone ranges from a confessional -- and occasionally sentimental -- lyricism, to emphatic -- and occasionally demagogic -- rhetoric. Despite protestations to the contrary, the predominant message, in so far as one can be detected, is inescapably male-centered: "If the artist or the poet truly possesses a woman's being and her senses, he feels he possesses life. His love and the whole of life become one, [but] the poet is burdened by the task of reconciling his art with... the woman he loves and her urge to dominate."
Though he claims to eschew literary artistry, Soliman has in effect devised an elaborately cyclical schema (the book is divided into four "dimensions", six "surfaces" and "poems") which allows him to mould a wide range of apparently incompatible themes into a homogeneous whole -- probably this book's most impressive achievement. At the centre of the "dimensions" lies the cardinal story of a love doomed from the beginning: "Now she is gone. Without her the place shocks him, suffocates him. He could no longer withstand the place, nor could the place withstand him. He translated these poems, and wrote introductions to them, as a way of not picking up the receiver and dialing her number." In this way, the sustained narrative of the first section comes to explain the poems occupying the last.
But the artist's initial decision to separate from his beloved is not as inevitable as Soliman suggests -- nor, in fact, as tragic. In the light of post-modernist conceptions of the creative process, moreover, the Promethean solitude in which Soliman so willingly indulges is an anachronism, and often lacks the required dose of self-irony: "He finds his universal love of existence in the one he worships, and finds his love for her in every other woman, the way he finds it in every grain of sand or drop of water. He needs her, and does not need her..." One is tempted to ask what, ultimately, does Soliman's excessive fear of being dominated by a woman he once loved have to do with such abstract and well-worn concepts as "creation" and "universal love"?
But it is these stream-of-consciousness scenarios that form the substance of the journals occupying the first part of the book. Proffered as a form of self-defence in the face of her overpowering possessive urge and her animosity towards art, these conversations with the nameless beloved serve as a pretext for Soliman to expand on topics which he purports to mention only in passing. The "surfaces" which follow each delineate one such topic, drawing on both the "dimensions" of the love story he experienced and the poems he translated as a result, though Soliman has now stopped dressing his ideas in dramatic or epistolary garb and opts instead for a more immediate and direct approach.
In the informed, intellectually stimulating, economical yet intimately conversational chapters which make up this section, Soliman deals with topics that range from the late 18th century Romantic movement in Europe -- the source of some of the poems he chose to translate -- to the issues involved in defining poetry, and what Soliman calls "the Baudelairian complex", namely the individualistic narcissism of the modern artist. "The object is a volume," he explains. "And the truth of some object is not built on one surface, but on all the surfaces that complement each other to define for us that object's features." Thus each of the topics he discusses here is a surface that contributes to the existence of the unique object that is Soliman's book, and the experience it manages to distill -- the hidden (other) side of the art-love dilemma to which the title cryptically refers.
The poems themselves, though by no means representative of their respective traditions, present an enormous, if eclectic (both historically and geographically) cross-section of European literature -- Robert Graves, Eluard, Pasternak, even Sappho is included. They were rendered, as Soliman emphatically states, in the conviction that "poetry can be translated... The conflict of life and death ignites the poet's depths, and with it emerges its own special rhythm, which a fine, literal translation will never ruin..." Characteristically, however, they relate to the rest of the book only obliquely, enriching the journals by association rather than any obvious connection. And Soliman's achievement resides in his ability to juxtapose literary and artistic orientations as widely divergent as those of Nietzsche and Keats, while at the same time retaining an overall sense of wholeness.
But what gives this book its value will be neither Soliman's rendering of the poems, nor his obsessive concern with the dilemma of love and art. Rather, it will be his consistent struggle to reach out to people from the midst of solitude. The book may not provide the intellectual lucidity of an academic study or the aesthetic power of one of Soliman's paintings, but as the testament of an important artist's existential torment and a rare autobiographical document, it more than serves its purpose.
The canary sings to himself, it is true, but there is no doubt that he is well worth listening to.