Translating the ‘Book of Safety’ and Why ‘Checkmate’s Nothing to Crow Over’

Hoopoe Fiction recently published Yasser Abdel Hafez’s challenging — and rewarding — novel, Book of Safety, in translation by Robin Moger, who answered a few questions about the novel and his process for ArabLit:

What is it with you and criminals? Vertigo, Women of Karantina, Otared, and now Book of Safety.

Robin Moger: I don’t know, but now you’ve got me worried.

Did the book’s mosaic-like structure – if I can call it that — change the way you worked? (For instance, translating all the book-within-a-book “Book of Safety” passages at once, rather than going from start to finish.)

RM: No, not exactly. I worked through it the same way that I read through it, which is straight through. This is the “story” after all, fabula left far behind (if it can be said to be left, which it can’t): you still progress through the text as a reader on your own timeline which to you is a straight road whatever its real shape. Unless you do that you might not be as sensitive as you could to the management of transitions and the reproduction of effect. This was the area in which there was most negotiation with the editors: managing the movement, sometimes abrupt, into other voices and times. In some places the original was even more unforgiving when it came to slipping in and out of voices and stories. I’d imagine a very conventional chronological narrative might be easier to translate in a piecemeal way,.

There was an intense Cairo-icity to much of it. Were you ever tempted to footnote-explain, for instance, the Baron’s Palace? Or give a preface, afterword, map, ?

RM: I obviously overcame those temptations. For all its specificity and the importance of place—the neighbourhoods and their characters, the buildings, the countryside settings (although isn’t this importance of place, not importance of these specific places?)—your questions raises questions in response. Doesn’t the text ultimately provide sufficient information about them? Is the need to know more—the reader’s insecurity, as it were—an impulse that _should_ be entertained, however understandable? In a text like this one, to pin events and places to maps and historical-narrative commentaries (and then where do they begin and end? Academic bleed sets in, the desire to lay out not only the facts but their significance and how the text plays with them, what it says through them and round them) might be seen to encourage two unhealthy and mutually exacerbating approaches to reading: that there is an underlying linear narrative, a series of unfolding events set along a clear timeline that occur in specific places to particular kinds of people in a particular kind of setting, and if this are teased out and firmly located then finally the meaning of the text will surrender itself; that translated texts set in foreign places tell you something about that place or otherness, that you read them for this reason, out of curiosity, and when a text fails to augment this archive of interesting facts or resists your questioning, it is betraying you on some level, or failing.

When texts are augmented with prefaces and footnotes it often betrays the impulse behind their selection for translation and it is a kind of violence to the text and its purposes and to the reader, who, if they manage to ignore the information on offer cannot ignore the fact that it is there. “Checkmate’s nothing to crow over,” as Ustaz Fakhri says; this paraphernalia can diminish a book.

It begins with the state trying to ascertain Mustafa’s motives for turning from a university professor to a thief. Later, Khaled and Hasna and of course the reader attempt the same. Is this a game that ends in a draw? Is there a such thing as motive, or is it the invention of fiction?

RM: I don’t know that it is as definitive as that: that motive is the invention of fiction. To me, at any rate, it’s more that Khaled and his characters have to be narrated, that narration is the only way to express or approach motivation and essence and that this lays traps of its own. There is no end to the process of writing and imperfect ascription and no stability: in retrospect—and everything takes place in retrospect—the truth is gone; in all the narratives the constant process of becoming and change through which the characters move is revisited, but it slips and slides around them.

The women in the book seem, broadly speaking, to remain perpetual children. Did you read this as symbolic or — ?

RM: I’m not sure I wholly recognize that in the female characters, or not more so, say, than the male characters. They are—the “real” among them, as opposed to the baron’s daughters, say, or the witch—sexually and socially at a disadvantage and oppressed by their place in the male characters’ narratives, even infantalized if that’s the word, though perhaps heavily constrained/determined-by-them would be more accurate: “Her father: Mustafa. Her grandfather: Ismail. Two men to complete the label that accompanied her everywhere.”

In one way this is an aspect of every character’s constraint: the woman in the quote above, Hasna, still pursues the truth through the narratives she constructs (and deconstructs) about her father. Her efforts, her experimental compositional techniques, are her agency. So with Talia, so with Nabil’s wife (who is in fact less a prisoner of her narrative games than her husband: “he had turned Heliopolis into a cause that weighed him down without respite, while she saw in it only an adventure and a game.”). In the comparison between Ustaz Fakhri, the chess legend of Shubra, and the maid, Naema, who becomes his lifelong companion there is a clear and unpalatable dynamic over sex for pay, but also a great ambiguity over agency and freedom. Fakhri calls history “a great hill of lies” but his present is highly determined by political and historical vagaries. Naema escapes both, she even escapes the text of this book (the book that creates her): she enters and reenters our and his awareness with something more precious and powerful, a sense of being and becoming in the present, a constantly renewed hope: “Naema would strip, and suddenly she’d smell the fragrance of a journey that had brought her all the way from the shacks to his apartment, the whole way lined with fruit trees and flowers, a single pace between two trees a trip through all the scents and colors that accompanied her to his soft bed.”

Who would you like to read this book? What about it made you want to translate it? What would you like potential readers to know about it (an elevator pitch that continues for any number of floors…)?

RM: Well, I would want anyone to read it who had the cash and time and impossibly I would want everyone who did to be the sort of person who would enjoy it. The things I liked about this book, and which I hope would come across in the translation, would be the elusive and delicate nature of the prose and the often beautiful, uncertain, way sentences stopped or turned or gathered. It is a very brilliant and subtle and strange meditation on history and books and narratives of all kinds.

The thief has the “power to expose the fakery in whose prison we pass our lives.” Is the novelist also a thief, snatching away comforting conventional wisdoms?

RM: Yes. Or the novelist, like Mustafa, is someone who cares enough to ask. Mustafa imposes a sort of Sufistic constraint on his victims, stealing away their indifference and complacency and giving them instead the hard road through the villages and the discipline of uncertainty. They both offer difficult gifts.

I love the passage on the “gomla mufida,” the rage against the “complete sentence.” Does this extend also to (complete) novels?

RM: Yes, exactly. To take another image that occurs in the text, the jumla mufida is like the chess game that concludes with a victory and a defeat. Both need to be revisited infinitely (rewritten) because in their conclusion they offer no conclusions. There is a book by Haitham Al Wardani called Jama3at Al Adab Al Naqes, (the Insufficient/Deficient/Defective Literature Group) that discusses the same thing.

How do you see the book’s relationship to “liberty” & “liberation”, words that seem to have shifted in the Egyptian discourse a number of times in the last decade?

RM: I think its interest in these words and what they might mean are in ideas of identity and being imprisoned by social and political and historical narratives, and the possibility of engineering escape (the possibilities that might result from that escape)—a focus that was very characteristic of 90s/pre-revolutionary literature & is now once again the subject of urgent enquiry. It’s in Women of Karantina say, which parodies the relationship between direct action and change/liberation, or in Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles and Paulo. Those are words that exist in political and social discourses of all kinds and so they are, inevitably, subject to constant inquiry and reclamation, but maybe the shift that happens is how closely or distantly liberty is related to the idea of action/activism/change or the idea of escape.

That’s one thought, in any case.