Just heard from his close friend, the poet Habib Tengour, that the great Algerian writer Nabile Farès died on Wednesday. A brief bio-note (revising the Wikipedia entry) for those who don’t know Farès or his work, followed by a little essay I wrote some years ago:
Born in Collo, Algeria, Nabile Farès participated, during the Liberation war, in the strikes of the high school students in 1956, before joining the ranks of the National Liberation Front (FLN) where he fought against the French towards the end of the war of independence (1960). He obtained his doctorate in France, with a dissertation on the role of the Ogre in North African oral literature, and spent much of his life in France as a writer and psychoanalyst.
His first work is the novel Yahia, pas de chance, (1970), which evolved from a manuscript Farès carried in a knapsack while on the run in several periods during and after the war of independence. Later works were both novels and poetry. Among these is the trilogy of novels La Découverte du nouveau monde and his greatest novel, Un Passager de l’occident, which arises, in part, from Farès’s friendship with the American writer James Baldwin. An English translation of this novel was published as A Passenger from the West in 2010 by UNO Press, translated by Peter Thompson & with an introduction by Pierre Joris.
All of Farès’s work is characterized by political engagement, and particularly by a drive to expand the definition of Algeria and Algerianness—and to resist factional politics and identity politics. He evokes an Algeria that is always a work in progress, and leaves the reader to reflect that personal identity (along with national) is much the same. Exile is a constant theme. His poetry, in particular, is challenging and marked by visually striking inventiveness. Check out, for example, Exile and Helplessness, also translated by Peter Thompson (Dialogos, 2012).In 1994, he was awarded the Kateb Yacine prize for lifetime achievement.
And here, as an homage to a wonderful writer, a little piece on translating him, I wrote exactly ten years ago in Paris in a café we both frequented, though we actually never met — for which I am now the sadder, even though the company of his books has been a major pleasure & vindication of what a life spent writing with the actual social & political world out there in mind can achieve:
Breakfast with Nabil Farès’ Bikini
Sitting in a café not 2 blocks away from where the book was written — at least partially, at least if we believe the author, I read (and reread, rereread – ri,ri,ri, laughing laughter spreads ((like the wind — rhi, in Arabic—?)) like something on my breakfast bread) Nabile Farès’ Le Champ des Oliviers (“The Olive Grove”), book 1 of his La Découverte Du Nouveau Monde, “The Disvovery of the New World” — which, do I have to add, is NOT about America, but about Algeria, its invention, or re-invention.
When I read I translate (we all do that, though mainly into “sense,” our sense, taking it away from language) but I am afflicted: I (also) translate as I read into other languages, into English in this case as the original text is in French (well, at least on the surface: it is traversed by Kabyle Berber and Arabic, or those are it’s basement vaults, its subterranean blood circulation systems, waterways, canalizations, rhizomatic networks — like the ancient irrigation systems spreading the water welling up from a deep source in the desert into a network that becomes oasis lushness, which is how I see Maghrebian literature as the lushness of writing in the contemporary desert of French literature — as both necessary irrigation and irritation).
And this French text is exhilarating again this morning, translating immediately (well, no, I stop & search for the English words, but I’m not “really” translating yet, I am not writing it down, it is only a part of my “reading” of Farès’ text) thus immediately haltingly or haltingly immediately into some sort of English that I may or may not ever write down as a translation. I order an other coffee (“an elongated coffee,” un café allongé, i.e. the waiter will bring the little espresso / harsh, over-roasted, certainly not the “pure Arabica” it would claim to be if I had the folly of asking after its origins / in a larger cup accompanied by a little silver pitcher of hot water with which I’ll “elongate” the beverage) — an excuse, somewhere, somehow, subconsciously, to be able to lay the book down a minute, take off my glasses, eyes smart, rub them, look across the street, at the sky, still blue, but not a Mediterranean blue here in the pays d’oïl, relax the sight, but the translation machine keeps churning, I am thinking of the paragraph just read, it has the word bikini in it twice, & it should be easy to translate — but I’m not sure that it is in fact, there must be more going on here for Farès to insist on the word, putting it into caps the second time around: BIKINI. The coffee comes, I irrigate the stingy espresso with a flow of hot water, now no more need to add sugar, sip some, return to the book. Here are the sentences I’ve been thinking about:
Siamois II remet ses frusques. Un bikini grandeur majuscules: BIKINI. Un tricot de peau assorti aux sourcils: brousailleux.
Which, fairly straightforwardly translates as:
Siamese II puts his gear back on. A bikini of capital size: BIKINI. An undershirt matching the eyebrows: bushy, tousled.
But why, why would this weird & hilarious character (who of course has a double in the book, called Siamese I) wear a bikini. I cannot figure it out either in French or in English. What can he mean? Could it be a reference of some sort to the Bikini Islands? Nope. Just a sort of fun play on making the smallest piece of vestment women wear large, larger? A capital tiny bikini? There is nothing so far in the text that would make the “Siamese II” character a woman anyway. A transvestite? A cultural travesty of some order? All I can hear is the “bik” which could possibly go to ballpoint, in French “un bic,” the writer’s instrument.
Can’t find it. Finish coffee, go home. Locate texts on Farès — my luck, the first one I come to cites an interview with Farès speaking about exactly these lines, this word. Farès explains to a bemused interviewer (who had also thought of the ballpoint pen!):
Take for example what I write there in caps I AM A BIKINI There it is, written in large letters. Why do you laugh? It is one of the most important things in the book, this word BIKINI that makes you laugh!
… Go further: the French call us “bicots,” “bics” [~ “dirty Arabs”, contemp. US “towelheads”, maybe closer to the n-word] I am “un bic qui nie…” / a “bic” who says no. I refuse to be a “bic”! I refuse to be subjected to the racism of the language of the French…
Untranslatable. Of course. But also, I submit, untranslatable for the French reader. Who, I am sure, will not be able to read the pun in this word any better than an English speaker. So it will be translated as bikini. A funny, startling but incomprehensible island in the language sea of Farès’ narrative. The atoll I run aground on this morning. Now I can go back to my café (or maybe search out the one on rue Casimir-Delavigne that features in the chapter just before the bikini) & keep on reading. Keep on this reading that is always a translation-in-the-making, this reading-as-translation of a text that is always (okay, I’ll say it: “always already”) a translation.