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Leg Over Leg
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A : fascinating, wild, seminal piece of work; creatively translated and well presented
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
In my reviews here at the complete review my preference is to simply present and discuss the text in front of me, avoiding author-biography, publishing history, context, and similar incidentals (as I generally prefer to regard them).
Obviously, that's not always possible -- discussion of a novel written in reaction to a specific historical event, for example, may demand some discussion of that context and the author's connection to it.
It becomes more complicated, too, with older -- 'classical' -- literature, as well as literature from languages and cultures that are likely to be less familiar to most readers.
Often, however, in these cases the books under review come with their own introductory material or translator's notes, and I can simply point the reader to that.
As belletrist, poet, travel writer, translator, lexicographer, grammarian, literary historian, essayist, publisher, and newspaper editor, he is known as a pioneer of modern Arabic literature, a reviver of classical forms, the father of Arabic journalism, and no less than a modernizer of the Arabic language itself.She calls Leg Over Leg his masterwork -- and notes:
it is acknowledged as one of the most distinguished works of the nineteenth century and an inaugural text of Arab modernity.That's all just from the first page of the Foreword, and it of course begs the question: why haven't we heard of this guy, and this work ? (And also leaves one wondering: really ?) The text suggests some answers -- most obviously, the difficulties inherent in translation here. Another significant root-cause is surely a general lack of English-speaking interest in and exposure to Arabic literature or any understanding of its evolution (at least for the period between the 'Arabian Nights' and Naguib Mahfouz) -- though this is not all readers' fault, as much has been hard (if not impossible) to come by in English.
Leg Over Leg is one of the first publications in a new series called the Library of Arabic Literature, published by NYU Press. Like Harvard University Press' well-known Loeb Classical Library (dedicated to classical Greek and Latin texts), the Library of Arabic Literature's volumes are bilingual editions -- in this case: "of classical and pre-modern Arabic literature". With this publishing program they are filling a vital (and huge ...) cultural, literary, and historical gap -- and in presenting the texts in bilingual editions make them useful for both scholars and general readers. [I can handle -- at least to the extent that I can look up a word's meaning in a dictionary -- writing in a decent number of languages not written in the Roman alphabet, from Greek to Russian, to the more challenging Japanese or Sanskrit, but have to admit near complete failure to master the Arabic script (so far); nevertheless, I appreciate -- and am tempted by -- having the Arabic original text facing the translation. And regardless of Arabic-illiterate readers such as myself, given how many Arabic-readers/speakers there are the bilingual approach the Library of Arabic Literature is taking is a no-brainer; like the Loebs, these might not always be the definitive scholarly editions of the (original) texts, but they surely will become the standard editions even for university-level readers.]
Leg Over Leg is a four-part work and, in its outlines, autobiographical -- but it is something rather different than just a fictionalized life-story. The first comparison that springs to mind is Tristram Shandy, and it shares a lot, in both its willingness to push the bounds of fiction and in its heavy reliance on humor, with Sterne's novel. Equally important, however, is the author's attention to and fascination with language, and in his 'Author's Notice' al-Shidyāq already makes clear that his lexical interests (and expertise) shape much of the work:
To proceed: everything I have set down in this book is determined by one of two concerns. The first of these is to give prominence to the oddities of the language, including its rare words.This he does -- with what can seem like a vengeance, offering in his Author's Notice already a litany of examples (and immediately making clear to reader's that the translation-bar is set high here). So, for example, he notes: "among the characteristic associations of the letter ḥ, for example, are amplitude and expansiveness" -- and then gives a slew of examples of words with the letter ḥ that demonstrate this; it makes for a fascinating glimpse into the language, even if obviously much then remains closed to the monolingual reader.
The second 'concern' al-Shidyāq has in the book is with discussing: "the praiseworthy and blameworthy qualities of women", and these two come together with a bang in the opening chapter, 'Raising a Storm' -- a tour de force of a book-opening that with one fell swoop upends whatever expectations readers might have had about how rigid and puritanical writing-in-Arabic is, regarding matters of the flesh or anything else. In discussing how he and others express themselves, the author goes on an extended rant of sorts that also includes a ribald catalogue of variations on both male and female genitalia, and their conjunction. Al-Shidyāq is no suggestive, tip-of-the-iceberg-revealing kind of writer: he's lexicographically maniacal, heaping everything on his plate, to overflowing, leaving no possible alternative -- word or deed -- unmentioned.
While the sexual plays a significant role in the work -- indeed, he compares writing the work itself to the sexual act, writing in another bit of preliminary matter, his 'Proem', how: "when I ejaculated the book, I was left drained" -- but there's considerably more to this work, which is fundamentally a Bildungsroman.
The central figure is: 'the Fāriyāq'. As explained in a footnote, this is:
the name of the author's alter ego, formed by combining the first part of his first name and the last part of the last, thus Fāri(s al-Shid)yāq.This first book focuses on the Fāriyāq's youth, among the Maronites in Lebanon, and his early efforts at writing and a few unsuccessful attempts as a trader. By the end of this installment he has fled Lebanon, settling next in Egypt. Typically, among the variations he presents describing this transition he includes 'A Memorandum from the writer of these Characters', listing his complaints (now from a safe distance), starting:
The Fāriyāq now has escaped your lands and slipped through your hands. He's blown a raspberry in all your faces, and at your threats his pulse no longer races.Yes, rhyme plays an important role in al-Shidyāq's style -- and, yes, he's very aware of what he is doing:
Rhymed prose is to the writer as a wooden leg to the walker. I must be careful therefore not to rest all my weight on it every time I go for a stroll down the highways of literary expression lest its vagaries end up cramping my style or it toss me into a pothole from which I cannot crawl.It almost comes as a surprise that the Fāriyāq lasted as long as he did, as Leg Over Leg is a sharply critical satirical work that takes few prisoners.
Among al-Shidyāq's main targets is a provincialism that manifests itself specifically in an unwillingness to further education. In describing his childhood he notes that he was sent to the local village school, and there:
The teacher in question, like all other teachers of children in that country, had never in his life perused any book but that of the psalms, and it was that and that alone that the children studied there (Faugh ! Faugh !) though to say they studied it doesn't imply that they understood it. God forbid. Given its antiquity, it is no longer within anyone's capacity to understand that book (Snore ! Snore !), and the inaccuracy of its Arabic translation and the lameness of its language have made it yet more obscure and mysterious, to the point that it has almost come to consist of no more than word puzzles and riddles ( Have at it ! Have at it !)As he suggests:
It seems that our masters, lords of the next world as of this, do not want their wretched subjects either to understand or to open their eyes but instead try as hard as they can to leave them wandering in the labyrinths of ignorance and stupidity (Barf ! Barf !). If they wanted otherwise, they would bestir themselves to establish a printing press for them there to print useful books, whether written originally in Arabic or translated into it (Forward ! Forward !)More than anything else, Leg Over Leg feels like an effort at revitalization -- of bringing language to life, and through it showing how stories are brought to life, and showing the potential of words -- the near-infinite possibilities of expression, and what that brings with it. Al-Shidyāq's purpose is, in part didactic -- so especially in leaving his readers almost at sea in his vocabulary -- but he's well aware that simple preaching or criticism won't fully get his point across, and the beauty of the work is in how he fashions an entertainment out of all he wants to convey. Oddly, a chapter entitled 'Various Amusing Anecdotes' is among the least amusing, the anecdotes entirely too succinct, and there are certainly sections where al-Shidyāq can get carried away in his listings (such as in listing the words used to describe the sounds an organ produces, right down to: "slurp-slurp and baa-baa and tee-hee and keek-keek and buzz-buzz and schlup-flup"), but Leg Over Leg also offers actual stories, as well as, of course, the continuing adventures of the Fāriyāq himself.
Al-Shidyāq nicely catches the Fāriyāq's childish ambition and imagination:
While the Fāriyāq's head and feet stayed put in his house, his mind was climbing mountains and hills, scaling walls, conquering castles, descending into valleys and caves, plunging into mire, roaming deserts and launching itself upon the waves, for his dearest desire was to see a land other than his own and people other than his family, which is everyone's first concern while growing up.Al-Shidyāq suggests the escapist possibilities offered by literature. Not surprisingly, the young the Fāriyāq turns to versifying. His poetic ambitions and cleverness also get him in trouble on occasion, but he can't leave the wordplay be -- but his writing is only a small part of the story. He tries his hand at trading, too, but that doesn't go well, and various other small adventures expose him to a variety of characters; among the chapters are two that recount, for example, 'The Priest's Tale' (which includes a vocabulary-list of "rare words mentioned above", as al-Shidyāq continues to try to invigorate language at every turn, too ...).
These are just the beginning of the Fāriyāq's adventures, the first quarter of his journey, but it's already an impressive, slightly dizzying trip.
It is difficult to fully assess Davies' translation without being able to compare it to the original (even as that tantalizingly stares back at the reader on every other page ...), but it appears to be a remarkable accomplishment. This is a text that is very word-centric. Al-Shidyāq is enamored by the richness of language and of what it can do, and Davies' renderings (and some endnote-help) both convey that and, it seems to me, at least some of the Arabic-specific wordplay. Complicating matters further is al-Shidyāq's use of rhyme, repetition, and alliteration; Davies' italicized emphasis on the rhymes seems like a good solution, and his word-choices for the most part seem good. (One instance where the quest for alliteration perhaps went too far is in the chapter-heading, 'Bodega, Brethren, and Board'.)
Yes, this is only the first of the four volumes of Leg Over Leg (with the final two not even available yet, and only due out in 2014), but it is not too early to state that the publication of this work, in this edition, is a game-changer. This is a foundational work of modern Arabic literature and its publication in English is long overdue -- but given how it is presented here, it was perhaps worth the wait. This edition, with helpful endnotes, the original Arabic text, and in a translation that both reads well and appears to closely mirror the original, seems, in almost every way, ideal.
This is a work -- as presented here -- which should help bring about a fundamental reassessment of Arabic literature as we know it. By we I mean us ignorant-of-Arabic readers: deprived of this work, we have heretofore only been able to read modern Arabic literature as if we had read English literature without awareness of the existence of Tristram Shandy and its techniques -- or even, arguably, all of western literature without Don Quixote. I believe I have been fairly well exposed to both contemporary and classical Arabic fiction in translation, but Leg Over Leg upends many of what I thought were reasonable preconceptions about Arabic writing and its evolution that I had.
Summing up: I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this is the most important literary publication of a translation into English, in terms of literary history and our understanding of it, in years. (And, yes, it's an entertaining (and very unusual, in every respect) read, too.)
- M.A.Orthofer, 7 November 2013
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Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (أحمد فارس الشدياق) was born around 1805 and died in 1887.
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