Ibrahim al-Koni’s ‘The Scarecrow’: The Death of Settling Down

Ibrahim al-Koni’s The Scarecrow, trans. by William M. Hutchins, is part of the Man Booker International-shortlisted author’s “New Waw” trilogy. The first in the trilogy recently received a major translation prize. Does the translation of the third hold up?

By Rachael Daum

scarecrowIbrahim al-Koni’s The Scarecrow is the third and final installment in the Libyan novelist’s New Waw trilogy. The first, the titular New Waw: Saharan Oasis, earned translator William Hutchins this year’s National Translation Award in Prose.

The trilogy’s third installment allows the reader a broader view of the nomadic Tuareg featured in the books. For those unfamiliar with the Tuareg, the family line passes through the mother’s side, and the men swathe themselves in blue veils.

Even though al-Koni’s trilogy is chronologically linear, the books don’t need to be read in order. The plot, after all, is not the most important part of the book. In fact, in not being weighed down by plot, we have the luxury of picking up the stones left along the path by al-Koni and Hutchins, allowing a reading more focused on language, character, and the narrative’s wandering stories.

In the publisher’s words:

This continuation of a tale of greed and corruption opens with a meeting of the conspirators who assassinated the community’s leader at the end of the previous novel, The Puppet. They punished him for opposing the use of gold in business transactions—a symptom of a critical break with their nomadic past—and now they must search for a leader who shares their fetishistic love of gold. A desert retreat inspires the group to select a leader at random, but their ‘choice,’ it appears, is not entirely human.

This novel starts slow and “talky,” as is suggested by the synopsis. The elders toss ideas back and forth in their caves, trying to find out how to choose their next leader. The catch is, they need one who will agree with them and do as they wish. In the parts of the novel spent in conversation, there is constant back and forth within the narrative — between elders, between spirits, between the Spirit and living world, and so on — which serves to displace and disorient the reader. This is not bad; rather, in meandering and weaving through the narrative, the reader is as lost as the tribe she is reading about. It is in these wanderings that the reader is swept along.

Moments of beauty and warning

There are truly poignant images in the novel, as when the leader of the tribe is left holding in one hand a beautiful doll, and, in the other, a worn skull wrapped in snakeskin — sharp moments that root the reader in a deeper, more profound, confusion. What is this world with jinni? Why all these veils? Truly visceral passages then disturb this deeper rooting, such as when the hero, blinded by the false gift of a jinn, attempts to rip out his own eyes and in a moment of madness strangles his favorite slave. There are these moments of beauty, and of warning.

Indeed, most of the novel seems to constitute greater warnings. There is a great emphasis on calling things by their “true names,” which is rather wonderfully juxtaposed with the Tuareg people’s horror of mouths, which are described as “a crack the Law had reckoned tantamount to genitalia even before people came to see it as disgraceful.”

There is much speaking through these “crevices,” as they are deemed, yet little truth spoken: this is the elders’ downfall. There are lessons to be learned about gifts, which are always false: they are a debt that can never be repaid. One must never do evil, as it may become good; and never do good, as it may become evil. And vengeance is the road to immortality: “The disciple of revenge is a creature who is ready to perish in order to reincarnate as the atrocious nightmare people refer to as vengeance.”

There is a question in the novel as to the book’s attitude toward women. Upon being told the Spirit World will allow prophecy through the urine of a woman who has been only with her husband, the hero doubts he will be able to find such a thing: “Would he discover anywhere in the desert even one woman who had never cheated on her husband — if not with her body surely at least in her heart? Didn’t the Spirit World say prophetically that woman could deceive even herself — as she was always happy to do…?”

Is this misogynist or facetious? Women are not given names in the novel, and are described as “gossips” and “chatterboxes.” However, it is widely acknowledged in the book that women are the stronger sex: they plot revenge for their husbands, who steal them from a “father’s paradise.”

“Man’s happiness is with a woman, but a woman’s exists elsewhere.” As with any other topic within the trilogy, this one is multi-faceted and complex.

The sometimes-clunky translation

In speaking to Hutchins’ translation, there are any number of issues to be considered. Hutchins himself admits that there are challenges in translating Arabic language and Tuareg culture, and an illuminating interview with Hutchins can be found at Words Without Borders. However, he states that he places the reader’s comprehension above all else.

This is undoubtedly the case in the book that won him the National Translation Award. The New Waw. But there are times when the word choice in Scarecrow is difficult to negotiate. Hutchins chooses to include words that traverse time and space, calling women’s gatherings, for example, a “soiree,” dubbing camel farms “corrals” (Tuareg cowboys, anyone?), and saying that someone must pay “full retail price” for a prophecy — roll that one back, Walmart.

Certainly, the differences between Arabic and English are wide — for example, long, winding sentences that are elegant in Arabic might come across as clunky in English. Hutchins has elected to leave them here. In places, there could be much simpler and perhaps more elegant ways to render these passages in English without sacrificing the meaning or rhythm of the Arabic.

Having said that, the grace and loveliness of other parts of the narrative cannot be denied. As in the earlier books, Hutchins’ renderings of al-Koni’s descriptions of the desert are uncanny, disturbing, and beautiful:

“Every corner, every void, every empty space, every rock, every height, every tree, every bird, every mirage, and every song of silence brings man the good news of immortality in the world of the desert.”

“What type of delight is achieved in the Spirit World? When was the life of the Spirit World a comrade for the life of the desert? Does someone who has lost the desert truly live when he no longer finds a space for himself in space?”

Hutchins understands the nomad’s need and love for travel, for the space he traverses: this shines through in these and many other lines.

The scarecrow

Finally, no reading could be complete without considering the titular scarecrow. It was erected by a man who took advantage of a woman to protect her lands in exchange for her body. It looms over the book, “giggles” at man’s plight, seems to always side with the women—indeed, it seems to be there to protect the women, and it delivers warnings to the men. (Is it, perhaps, a symbol of women’s revenge?)

Man has been a hostage of the scarecrow since falling prey to the beauty of the widow who owns those lands. “The scarecrow is our destiny. We settle in it. It settles in us. We are the scarecrow, and the scarecrow is us.”

Settling is the death of nomads: the scarecrow, then, is the fate of settling down. This is the revenge. And so man becomes one with the fields he protects by building the scarecrow, by becoming that scarecrow in the desert oasis’s fields.

unnamedRachael Daum is a graduate student at Indiana University inflicting Russian literature and language on herself, and vice versa. She is also the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association, and you can find her @Oopsadaisical.