Jonathan Wright on the Novel as Close to the One He’d Like to Write ‘As Any Arabic Book Could Be’

Of the hundreds of books with which I open a relationship each year, many don’t survive the first chapter. Many that I do finish weren’t worth the trouble. But every now and again, when I get to the end of a book, I go right back to the beginning to re-experience how the author created this magic. Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain, now available in lovely, sound-and-echo translation from Jonathan Wright, is one of those books.

Wright, as one of the book’s closest readers, answered a few questions about the book and his translation process:

norainArabLit: Where did you run across this book? How did you first meet it? How did you come to decide that you’d translate it?

Jonathan Wright: I ran across it at the Beirut book fair in December 2011, just lying around. When I go to these Arab book fairs I tend to pick up dozens of books speculatively, since there’s no well-developed filtering process in the Arab media. I noticed it had an endorsement by Elias Khoury, which augured well, and I liked the premise of the divided self — the exiled self and the self that stayed behind. I suggested it to BQFP and to my surprise they accepted a few months later (this was during their early expansive phase). Ahdaf Soueif helped by mentioning it in The Guardian in a Christmas book list.

AL: How did your relationship with it change over the course of translating it and editing the translation? Did you discover new facets? (After all, there is so much to discover in it, so many different subgenres.)

JW: This book was as close to being the book I would have liked to write as any Arabic book could be, assuming I had the imagination and the linguistic skills. Remember, Amjad and I are almost exactly the same age and we have lived in the same places at roughly the same times — Beirut in the 1980s, especially during the siege of West Beirut in 1982, in Cyprus and in London. I might have seen Amjad in some PFLP office in Fakahani without knowing what he would become. I think I can say that we also share a similar view of the world — internationalist, progressive, sceptical and so on. So I felt in tune with the book from the start. My relationship with the book was always one of identification, though Amjad did alert me to some tacit allusions that I might have missed (Kundera on nostalgia, Anais Nin in Fez, Saadi Youssef’s poetry etc)

AL: For me, one of the book’s surprises was the exchange between Khalaf and the narrator(s). It was almost silly. I was surprised to find humor in the strangest places. Different sorts of humor, even. What surprises did the text yield to you?

JW: Like all the best books, Amjad’s often leaves you with the sense of sharing an experience with the author, but in words that are more precise than you could have put together. His description of how he felt, at the age of about 17, when he opened the book of poetry called A Prophet Who Share My Apartment With Me, captures an experience I remember well, but in my case it’s clouded by time. His dialogues with Mahmoud, his former comrade in revolution, are some of the best fictional representations I know of the intellectual and political history of the Arab world in the late 2oth century. The passage where they come up with the slogan “Let the ox do the work” comes to mind.

AL: As I read and re-read it, it feels more poetry than fiction — driven less by the desire to discover what “comes next” and more by the self-sufficient beauty of each section, sometimes each sentence. We don’t really need to know what happens with the plague, or with Roula, or even with the narrator’s fate. Each moment stands on its own. Did the text’s poetic richness change at all how you worked?

JW: I followed where Amjad led. I merely tried to preserve the rhythm. Even more than usual I read it aloud to make sure it could be recited. I worked hard on it too, sometimes agonizing over the details. One of my favourite sentences (“Seed sown in fresh furrows soon sprouts”) went though several mutations and echoed in my head in various forms for days. In the end it’s Gerard Manley Hopkins. You’re right about the episodic nature of the book. The scenes are self-contained but they add up to a whole picture of a man.

AL: How was your process different here (or not different) from translating Taxi, Azazel, Judgment Day, etc?

JW: This was most like Judgment Day in that I knew the author had weighed each word, so I had to do likewise.

AL: Did you ever have any sort of models in mind? (This text is like X in English, I am shooting toward that particular style.)

JW: No, I think it’s very idiosyncratic. The change of style in different sections is very striking. For the poetic parts I couldn’t forget Eliot of course, who sometimes hovers there. I even cheated and slipped some Eliot in, with Amjad’s permission. The “empty bottles and cigarette ends” and the phrase “their eyes fixed before their feet” are not spelled out in the original, but I couldn’t resist the tease. I’m not sure how professional associations would view that!

AL: Did you work at all with Amjad Nasser in the process? With an editor at BQFP?

JW: Yes, I spent three days with Amjad in the Hammersmith Lyric coffeeshop going over the text, and later through emails. He wasn’t at all interventionist, so it was very smooth. The editors at BQFP didn’t make significant changes.

AL: Sometimes not naming places is a sort of cowardice, a shying away from truth. But here, Nasser (in part by not using Jordan, Baghdad, London, Beirut) is creating a parallel universe that rubs up against our universe but is its own separate space. Indeed, considering we begin with an apocalyptic plague surging through London (the City of Red and Grey), it is certainly not “realism.”

I love the narrator’s explanation of why he felt the need to free himself of names, but did the rendering of these place-names in translation, which seem to have such clear reference points (City of Siege and War must be Beirut, etc.) ever trouble you, that non-Arab readers wouldn’t know Sindbad, City of Siege and War, City Overlooking the Sea?

JW: Yes, they did trouble me, but I didn’t come up with any alternative solution. I was especially troubled by the City of Red and Grey, until Amjad explained to me that London really is red and grey, with the red brick and the grey skies. But much of the book is myth-like, so it seems appropriate. The little incidents (handing over the watch, the meeting in the Baghdad bookshop, the chances encounters) take on mythic significance, don’t they? It’s interesting, however, the book contains no non-Arab names at all (even Marx and Disraeli are mere ghosts), while it has plenty of old Arab ones (the Sufis and calligraphers, for example). I can’t speak for Amjad, but I suspect he didn’t want to seem to be name-dropping about how well-read he is!

AL: Why did this book not win a major prize, like the IPAF? Is it me, or is there something wrong in the world?

JW: I don’t know. The truth is I don’t even know the procedures for applying for consideration for these prizes. I leave it to the publishers. Perhaps I should have been more assertive but unless everyone else is equally enthusiastic about a book, you worry you might seem pushy and deluded.

AL: The initial launch was scrubbed because of the tube strike. Will the launch be re-scheduled? Will Nasser appear with the book at any of the summer lit festivals, etc.?

JW: I hope so. BQFP said they would reschedule it and they have mentioned some events for Amjad in the Arab world.