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 movement of the watersInterview by Injy El-Kashef
Meeting José Sarney at the Brazilian ambassador's residence in Cairo, you would not suspect that this was a man who once said there was "great anguish" in being simultaneously a politician and an intellectual. Demure, dapper, charming yet somehow withdrawn, it is as hard to imagine him guiding his country out of authoritarianism and towards civilian rule, with all the attendant risks of chaos, as it is to see him as the inventor of Cristório, the elemental fisherman hero of his wildly-successful novel The Master of the Sea. Perhaps, I wondered, he was enjoying a well-earned break from the trials of both writing and public life. Sarney smiled: "The politician is a man of reality and the writer is a man of abstraction," he said. "I have spent most of my life struggling to reconcile the two."
I reminded him that he once remarked that, as an intellectual, he wanted to "change the world" while, as a politician, he sought to "administer the world". Was that still his goal today?
"I would like to rephrase that," he replied. "The writer wants to create a new world, an imaginary world. The politician wants to make the real world a better place."
"Of course," he added, "there are many bad politicians. A good politician is one who wants to change the world. He refuses to accept injustice and inhumanity, and is willing to work for the benefit of his country, his people and the rest of humanity."
Sarney still believes passionately that the writer can, pace WH Auden, make things happen. Politics has no privileges, in this sense. "I think the writer possesses the same instrument as the politician: the word. In his own way, a writer may help to change the world with his ideas. But I don't think a novelist can actually change the world through his novels."
Sarney's inspiration as a writer is deeply rooted in the culture of his native Brazil. His compatriot Pedro Braga once wrote that Sarney's work captured the beauty in the banality of everyday life. "As Brazilian writers, our material is the land which we know so well," he explained. "This is also the source of popular culture in Brazil."
Though ideas may change society, the purpose of writing -- its intrinsic beauty -- is not to add to the world, but to render fully what is already there. "It is much more important for the writer to harvest what already exists," said Sarney. "His role is to eternalise those instants through words."
O Dono do Mar is set in Maranh‹o, Sarney's hometown. Yet he denies that the book is in any sense a disguised autobiography. "It is not exactly my life, but something that was very close to me," he said. "I was a witness."
In this novel, Sarney does for the fishermen of Maranh‹o what Jorge Amado did for the peasants of the cocoa plantations and Zé Lins for the workers in the sugarcane mills. In doing so, he has virtually invented a whole new theme for Brazilian literature, which had previously turned its back on the sea. Sarney is obviously fascinated by the men whose lives he describes: "I think the fishermen have something very special, very fascinating in their life and work. They deal with the mystery of the sea. Their lives are regulated by mythology. They are mythology. They do not look at the sea as we do. They do not see the sea as we do, but as a primitive sea, a mysterious sea, the sea of legends."
And in a sense, it is for them that Sarney wrote O Dono do Mar -- as a contribution to the memory of those who work by the sea, rather than to universal literature. Yet he insists the fishermen are themselves universal. Certainly, his theme is: "The main character is the sea."
His use of the conventions of magical realism may raise hackles in certain circles, but it is never simply gratuitous, stemming from a profound belief in the need to revalorise the imagination in a world where its rights are constantly denied. "More and more, men are saturated with reality. They are reaching a limit where they can no longer stand this reality they have to put up with. They need to hear stories and, above all, stories about the sea."
It is this same need which produces Sarney's work. He insists he had no plan to produce a best-seller: "I wrote this book because writing, for me, is compulsive. It is a life motivation. If many people are happy to share this story with me, well and good, but if they are not, I will still keep on writing the same way." His eye is on posterity, not fame or money: "In the future, the book will survive by its poetry. Poetry does not need a market."
God is here, and the devil with himReviewed by Injy El-Kashef
Friday. Everything of significance takes place on Friday. It is the day of deaths, of births, of storms, rescues, monsters, apparitions, love, and the loss of love. And O Dono do Mar is one long Friday spanning the entire life of its protagonist, Captain Anton Cristório, and of the rest of the world. Time is not important, for nothing ever changes, "the air is the same, always".
Set in the north-eastern fishing archipelago of Maranh‹o, José Sarney's own birthplace, O Dono do Mar is an exploration of the Brazilian collective unconscious. It takes the form of a timeless dissection of those "things that we see but never discuss", woven around the life of the fishermen who seem to have internalised all the wisdom and futility of the past.
The sea which is their source of life, and death, is the reflection of their soul, sheltering the ghosts of those who were shipwrecked and the monsters which devour and curse, for "the colour of the sea becomes the colour of the onlooker's eyes". It is the memory which has carried conquerors and kings, explorers and pirates; and should the fishermen ever forget, nocturnal storms are there to remind them of the men who wrote history. Christopher Columbus is spotted on one of the darkest nights, "on his face the expression of madness and desire. He is on his way to impregnate the Indian women of the New World and then request the price of his discoveries from the kings of Spain" -- and so are Vasco de Gama, James Cook, Magellan, Johnson and Tasman, Francis Drake, and any of the other men who sailed on that sea that "plows its way through the fishermen's heads".
Yet the proud fishermen coldly dismiss any remembrance of the real history of Maranh‹o, an independent Portuguese colony for several hundred years and the subject of many attempted take-over bids by the French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the ship of slaves sails by, the fishermen recognise it as "the scum we have learnt from the English. The torture of blacks, the commerce of souls, the ship of misery, the boats of the Negroes. It is the shame of the sea. The foul smell emanating from it is the smell of human cunning".
Besides the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors, the sea of Maranh‹o is also infested by fantastic creatures which are clearly descendants of earlier species described in the great sea epics of antiquity. Cristório, like Jason, Aeneas and Odysseus, must fight his own version of the Cyclops, the Harpies, the Sirens and Charybdis, besides those creatures endemic to the sea of Maranh‹o, which are, nevertheless, instantly recognisable to any reader. The sea monsters are not the only elements that can be traced back to the fathers of literature, however. The work is subjected to a quasi-Homeric handling, with its catalogues of ships, lists of fighters, characters' identification by name and island and the encounter with the family ghosts.
The main protagonist, Captain Anton Cristório, possesses a canoe called Chita Verde. The canoe bids him farewell, having committed suicide in an excessive jealous rage; the canoe was getting old, and was certain its captain must be searching for a younger companion. The conventions of magical realism allow for such sentient objects, though the licence is, sometimes, pushed one step too far, resulting in some quite ludicrous passages. Chita Verde is not only endowed with a soul, but Cristório also desires a child by her/it. The son "will be like us: a canoe and a man". Yet this identification is not so surprising, since Chita Verde is above all the embodiment of Quertide, Cristório's true love, whom he seeks for three years, having promised to marry her after seducing her.
The novel combines the romantic heroism of characters from times gone by -- times which may have never existed, but nevertheless form a part of the world's cultural heritage -- with the practical, realistic toil of those who must seek their daily livelihoods. Cristório, the man who has unveiled every secret of the art of fishing through his laborious years on the sea, vows to snatch Quertide from the grip of the sea monsters: "My fiancée has been captured and I will find her even if she is in the lowest depths of hell". No hero of our time would make such bold Orphic declarations. Instead, the modern man would weep the loss, briefly surrender to depressive and suicidal tendencies, then promptly resume his daily course, occasionally cursing the cruelty of life.
Sarney's fishermen embody every commendable trait of the traditional man, as well as every fatuous belief connected with honour, women and family. Their "words always become acts", thus resuscitating the sacramental origin of language, when the word was the thing, instead of merely its semblance. But their language is saturated with the kind of statements which are every feminist's nightmare (or dream?). From the misogynist fear of castration by a vagina dentata ("a black forest where the impatient tiger lurks, waiting to bite") through the chauvinistic male gaze objectifying the female body to the deeply-rooted machismo of coastal societies where "man was born to be a man... women were born to belong to men", the fishermen do everything in their power to positively upset the spiritual descendants of Simone de Beauvoir.
The fact remains, however, that such interpretations of women are perfectly proportionate to the primitive and traditional nature of the society in question. It is an irrefutable fact that women were born with an elaborate physiological system designed for procreation and that if the division of labour sends men out to sea, women will inevitably concern themselves with domestic issues while awaiting their return.
O Dono do Mar abounds with detailed descriptions of the daily life of the fishermen. Besides the trees, animals and fish which populate their world, their fishing techniques are revealed with a precision and emphasis reminiscent of Melville's Moby Dick. The larger as well as the smaller fish are the subject of countless pages, and the methods of catching them are documented by a narrator who can only be a fisherman himself. By contrasting the immensity of the sea a natural backdrop with the intricacies of the men's fishing nets, Sarney successfully illuminates the incongruous paradox that is woven into the nature of all human endeavour in life.
'By contrasting the immensity of the sea as natural backdrop with the intricacies of the men's fishing nets, Sarney successfully illuminates the incongruous paradox that is woven into the nature of .all human endeavour in life. Through his characters, he establishes both the universal aspect of the pettiest of existences and the pettiness of the most universal human occupation, existence'
illustration: Gamil Shafik
Through his characters, he establishes both the universal aspect of the pettiest of existences and the pettiness of the most universal human occupation, existence. A simple dialogue between Cristório and his wife Camborina encapsulates a basic existential dilemma in just a few words. "All we do is watch the tide, marry, raise children, and daily await death, on land and sea". Cristório instantly realises how little he knows about the passing of days, but affirms, nevertheless, "We are here in Mogo. We are the centre of the world. God is here, and the devil with him."
This master of the sea is a fatalist who steers his way through a condition he did nothing to create: "I stand and let the wind slap my face; I spread my arms to receive in full the impact of the storm". And so he embraces his fortune, marrying a woman he neither knows nor loves because it has been decreed -- by the sea, if one is to guess. It was during one of those storms where the sky seemed to be "tearing the black cloth of the night with scissors of light", that Cristório was baptised, and while the ceremony was taking place "he felt armed for a battle that would last his entire life". The battle brought him grief and loss. Battered by the sea, he watched his children die and disappear in those moments when "throats are too small for the immense hymn of pain", while he lived to become a Don Quixote, tilting at apparitions and chasing after ghosts, attentive only to the trickle of water and the past.
Sarney's writing, in this translation by the Lebanese poet Iskander Habache revised by Albert Farrahat, wavers between the poetic and the factual, the beautiful and the vulgar. He attempts to capture the fishermen's idiomatic language while simultaneously embellishing it, which sometimes results in highly unrealistic effects, particularly in the erotic passages and those concerned with female virginity. Certainly a fisherman may intimately perceive a woman in the most poetic terms, but the sexual metaphors employed by the writer are too self-conscious to spring from the mind of so abandoned a character as Cristório. Elsewhere, however, his fluid style conveniently merges form and content, myth and reality, to produce a work which moves beyond any simply spatial or temporal considerations, to become a universal statement on the human condition.
By the end of the novel the reader is almost seasick. Tossed between the storms of memory and the waves of the laborious life of the fishermen, confronted with both the futility of life and Virgil's lacrimae rerum, we are made all the more intensely aware that "it is not the sun that regulates people's lives, but the movement of the waters".