MAY 10, 2014
AN ACCOMPLISHED Lebanese writer arrives in London, the center of the Anglophone publishing world. After a long, uncertain career as a struggling poet, he is informed that a welcoming party has been organized to receive him in the street. He expects to finally experience the glory and appreciation denied him at home. But the British literati, confused by his exotic, gender-ambiguous clothing, are unable to distinguish the poet and his wife, and the whole scene descends into farce. Is it a cautionary parable of cross-cultural misunderstanding and thwarted ambition, or something more complicated?
This scene occurs late in Faris Al-Shidyāq’s four-volume masterwork Leg Over Leg, after the reader has followed its writer-antihero on a halting, chaotic journey across the Middle East and Europe. Al-Shidyaq himself was one of the major literary instigators of Al-Nahda, the “renaissance” or “revival” of Arabic culture in the 1800s. One of the more audacious works ever produced in modern Arabic, Leg Over Leg both articulates his ambivalent response to Western literary innovation and gives fresh force to classical Middle Eastern literary forms. First published in 1855, it might be singular in 19th-century fiction for tracing its influences to both Tristram Shandy and al-Hamadhāni.
Al-Shidyāq’s arrival in English-language bookstores has a special timeliness in the fourth year of the Arab Spring; a poet, essayist, publisher, and newspaper editor, he is known as a pioneer of modern Arabic literature, and the father of Arabic journalism. He coined the modern Arab words for democracy, socialism, newspaper, and election. Perhaps portentously, his neologisms were threaded with subversive irony. He derived the translation for the thoroughly modern “newspaper” from a Classical Arabic term for Medieval Ottoman accounting books (jarīdah). The word he chose for election (entikhab) shares a three-letter root with the word for “ant-bites.” Not for nothing did al-Shidyāq work for one of the Ottoman Empire’s propaganda organs, though that newspaper, Al Jawā’eb, was one of the more contrarian official publications.
The full title of this work is startling: Leg Over Leg, or The Turtle in the Tree, concerning The Fāriyāq; What Manner of Creature Might He Be; Otherwise Entitled Days, Months, and Years spent in Critical Examination of the Arabs and Their Non-Arab Peers. The title’s physical and semantic evasions (one leg folded behind the other, or another’s, leg), the explicit eroticism, and the superabundant logophilia are evident on every page, which would not make it any easier to translate.
But Humphrey Davies’ translation, published in four dual-language volumes, is a triumph. He skillfully renders punning, rhyming prose without breaking the spell. In his “Note on the Text,” Davies details some of the editorial impositions in earlier printings of the Arabic text, such as the rearranging of chapters and dropping of typographical marks, which he has wisely chosen to ignore by returning to the 1855 edition overseen by al-Shidyāq.
Leg Over Leg is published by the recently established series from NYU Press called The Library of Arabic Literature. In March, the first volume of Davies’s translation was named to the shortlist for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award, administered by Three Percent, the online literature magazine of Open Letter Books, which is the book translation press of the University of Rochester. (The winner will be named on April 28th.) Though its competition is stiff — translations of very important novels by Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard, László Krasznahorkai, and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek — Leg Over Leg stands out for both its stylistic brazenness and the excellence of the translation. With this bilingual edition, The Library of Arabic Literature helps fill a large cultural gap and alters our view of Arabic literature and the formal trajectory of the novel outside the West.
Al-Shidyāq and Fāriyāq, the novel’s protagonist, share the same basic career trajectory. The author’s father fled Mount Lebanon (referred to as “the Mountain” in Leg Over Leg) when the politician he criticized eventually routed the political reformers. The son went to work as a bureaucratic copyist in the administrator of the victorious politician. He worked on a translation of the Bible at Cambridge, and he was deeply engaged in contemporary debates about vernacular literature and lexicography. He had the distinction in Cario of having a periodical, Fire and Brimstone Upon al-Shidyāq, exclusively composed of articles satirizing him.
Protagonist Fāriyāq is also a copyist from a family of middle-class bureaucrats. Similar to the anti-heroes of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, the figure of the copyist embodies all the anxieties and ambitions of a nascent bureaucratic age. In Paris, London, Cairo, and Istanbul, the vast resources of the state could, at this point in history, fulfill the great Enlightenment dream of aggregating all preexisting knowledge, including all language and literature. On the other hand, those same bureaucracies also threatened to promote mediocrity, extinguish creativity, and stifle individuality. These concerns are at the heart of al-Shidyāq’s literary project.
Fāriyāq travels, writes poetry mostly unappreciated by his friends and family, and briefly works as a salesman. He eventually settles into a career as a copyist with a European religious order. (al-Shidyāq himself spent 30 years working for missionaries, mostly in the print trade.) The missionaries are first mocked for their weak Arabic, making common errors in pronunciation, then more seriously mocked for their brutal asceticism.
Indeed, the book becomes increasingly skeptical of religion. Bored with the monks’ lifestyle, Fāriyāq quits after convincing an apprentice monk to leave with him. Some time later, Fāriyāq confesses to a priest of his sacrilegious acts, of writing salacious poetry and prying a monk from the order. The story then briefly follows the priest, as he recounts how, afflicted from childhood by a grotesque nose, he came to the church. The priest’s story is implicitly doubtful of transcendent values like faith, further enumerating the corruption, callousness, and pettiness of the monasteries.
After the priest’s story, we pick up again with Fāriyāq, who is now troubled by horrifying dreams that seem to be encroaching on reality. He undergoes a series of unfortunate events, from ruining his poetic career with a misplaced pun and losing some hard-earned money to a fast-talking swindler. He is living the prophecy of being born “with the misfortune of having misfortune everywhere in the ascendant.” Double-talking confidence men, including the priest and the trader, turn up in almost every chapter to enforce this astrological precept.
Another kind of artificer, the novel’s first-person narrator, interrupts throughout to disparage his protagonist and comment on the implausibility of the plot. This critic/narrator indulges in meandering digressions, scorns generic convention and then compulsively writes the next three pages in strict observance of those conventions. He debates Fāriyāq’s every contradictory impulse, deferring choice indefinitely.
Those stylistic experiments, like the techniques of early European novels like The Adventures of Master F.J., Euphues, or Don Quixote, are alternately tedious and visionary. There is only so long before your eyes glass over at another catalog of clothing, motives, literary techniques, personality traits, djinn names, djinn methods, and cities where djinns make their home. Collectively, these lists make up a substantial part of the first volume.
Literary cataloging, or the inclusion of long lists, poses an interesting stylistic problem for the writer. Narratives are shaped by authorial choice, and the catalogue appears to add detail or texture while seemingly willfully renouncing choice. The simple conjunction “and” diminishes causality and emphasis, the animating principles of plot, according to E.M. Forester. Catalogues take Forester’s formulation, “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” and narrows it to only, “The king died and the queen died.” The former statement is a plot, inscribed with causality, temporality, and a sense of narrative. The latter is only a story.
Al-Shidyāq solves this problem (he creates) by giving each litany an embedded rhetorical purpose. In the first chapter, the narrator discusses literary virtue and vice by giving the example of a churchwarden. The churchwarden is beloved by his parishioners despite indulging in profane descriptions of the female body. Over the next 112 lines and four pages (in the Davies translation), the narrator provides a litany of genitalia, fetishes, positions, fluids, epithets, and something called “the catapult,” which regrettably is not glossed. This robust list shares a similar literary purpose with the famous catalogue of Bloom’s trayf breakfast in the “Calypso” chapter of Ulysses. As Bloom and Fadiyaq advance in their respective novels, it becomes clear that they have ambiguous ethical, tribal, religious, and aesthetic loyalties. They are cosmopolitan omnivores, and they are uncommitted to the binary categories of “kosher” and “trayf,” “beautiful” and “ugly,” “good taste” and “bad taste,” set up by fusty old traditions. The pluralism of the litany reminds us these characters, and the novels they inhabit, are attempting to collapse the either-or proposition and reach for the sublime.
One of the most consistent pleasures of Leg Over Leg is its aphorisms. The author describes word-intoxicated young poets for whom love is primarily ripe subject matter: “It seems that the Arabic language is a snare for love, for it contains words of passion and amorousness found in no other.” As for the mysteries of metaphor, “There are also three- and four-step metaphors and some with more steps than the stairway of a minaret. Some of these stairways are smooth, some spiral, and others something else.” And one that any student of Arabic can appreciate: “Al-Asma’i died with a goiter on his neck from worrying about the glottal stop.”
Calle, the first step of the Arab literary renaissance by the Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, Leg Over Leg anticipates the more well-known French-Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery’s epoch-bending novels and the experiments of Naguib Mahfouz. The book’s final two volumes, which include the scene of al-Fariyaq’s botched reception in London, are scheduled for release later this year.
Early in the novel, the narrator faces a strictly hypothetical critic of the book who is ready to issue a negative review after reading the first four pages. To the reviewer who thinks that “one part (the bad part) is comprehensible and the other part is incomprehensible,” he delivers a deadpan riposte, “I swear by my life, even if the only thing it had to intercede for it and give it currency with the literati, and with you too, as a literary work, were its enumerations of so many synonyms, that would be enough!” It is that caustic self-deprecation that makes this novel so companionable, vivid, and contemporary.
Any reader for whom the term “world literature” is more than an empty platitude must read Humphrey Davies’s translation of Leg Over Leg.