Frontiers Through Every Word

Abdellatif Laâbi 
The Rule of Barbarism
(Translated by André Naffis-Sahely)
Island Position $12.00

Ingeborg Bachmann 
Enigma: Selected Poems
(Translated by Mike Lyons and Patrick Drysdale)
Ariadne $16.00

Manuel Rivas 
The Disappearance of Snow
(Translated by Lorna Shaughnessy)
Shearsman £9.95

 

In his essay, The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin argues, that no translation, however good, can have any real significance as far as the original is concerned:

For in its afterlife… the original undergoes a change. (…) For just as the tenor and the significance of the great works of literature undergo a complete transformation over the centuries, the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well.

It was with this conundrum swirling in my head that I approached these three very different books, which despite their differences, are united in their relationship to language and the effects of political distress.

First published in 1976, while he was serving an eight-year prison sentence for ‘crimes of opinion against the Moroccan state’, Abdellatif Laâbi’s pyrotechnic The Rule of Barbarism, translated by André Naffis-Sahely, is simultaneously a cri de coeur, a howl of pain, a protest, a flight of the imagination and a modernist experiment with language. Written in response to the rebellion of the Berber tribes of the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco who, in 1958, inspired by their Algerian neighbours, rose up against their colonial masters, the French, it is an epic of love, anger and despair. Born in Fez in 1942 and educated at a Franco-Muslim school, Laâbi started writing at fourteen before studying philosophy and cinema, then teaching French literature and founding the Moroccan University Theatre. It was during these ‘years of lead’, as this brutal period was referred to, that he began to write the six long poems that would form his extraordinarily precocious debut collection. The raw, pared-down, style recalls not only Morocco’s oral tradition, but the avant-garde poetry of Mallarmé and Paul Éluard. Laâbi quickly became known as a poète engagé: ‘I accept the term ‘engaged’ poetry when it… pursues its adventure to the end’.

He is not afraid to get down and dirty. There is rage: ‘my body heaves / a poem contorts me / I ejaculate it’, he writes in ‘Stagnations’. While, in ‘State of Violence’, he urges passive compatriots to:

 

take death by the horns

throw away your crutches

the anger of the invalids

is your couscous.

 

He deconstructs shibboleths about stereotypes and violence in a desire to stir his fellow citizens out of their complacency, borrowing Georges Bataille’s imagery of the abject with phrases such as: ‘The diarrhoea bursting from the world’s anus’. Yet ultimately these extraordinary, energetic poems, which grab the reader by the throat both linguistically and morally, are about the power of language itself.

 

Ingeborg Bachmann was born between the two world wars in Glangenfurt, Carinthia on 25th June 1926. Her parents were teachers but Hitler’s invasion of Austria and its annexation by Nazi Germany left her traumatized. From the age of seventeen she confronted its ideology in her poetry in an exploration of ideas about utopian borders that involved both people and language, as in lines from ‘About a Land, Its River and Its Lakes’ from Invocation of the Great Bear:

 

But still we’ll want to speak across the frontiers

And frontiers still will run through every word.

Yet, longing to be home well soon come through

And live with every region in accord.

 

After the war she studied philosophy and ended up in Vienna as part of the literary set where, in 1948, she met the great Holocaust poet, Paul Celan, who was escaping from Bucharest. She was twenty-two and he six years older and it was the start of a highly significant personal and literary dialogue.

Her potent imagery echoes that of Celan. In ‘Time on Loan’, she writes:

 

out there your lover’s engulfed in sand

it climbs round her billowing hair,

it cuts short her words, it tells her to be silent.

 

‘Out there’ (Drüben) is the opening poem in Celan’s first book of poems, The Sands from the Urns. For Celan the sand is code for the Shoah, while hair is a reminder of the death-camps; an image borrowed in Anslem Kiefer’s series of powerful paintings about Marguerite and Shulamith based on Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’. ‘Time on Loan’ also signifies an awareness of a fresh start under the threat of the Cold War where the lyrical first-person voice is unable to accept that post war hope has dwindled. The poem begins:

 

Harder days are coming.

The time on loan, repayment due,

appears on the skyline.

 

Bachmann’s dilemmas seem to mirror something of Adorno’s famous phrase about the impossibility of writing poetry after the Holocaust.

It was with her move to Italy in July 1957 and her second collection that she ‘learned to trust her five senses’. In the poem ‘The First-Born Land’, dedicated ‘to the south’, she writes: ‘I woke up clear-sighted / Life was granted me there’. From the 1950s Bachmann regarded herself primarily as a prose writer, but even fifty years later her poems have lost nothing of their power. The German composer Hans Werner Henze has said that there is ‘something alarming, scandalous, bewildering, startling’ about them. After a severe mental crisis due to the breakdown of her relationship with Max Frisch, she died tragically young at the age of forty-seven in an accidental fire in her flat in Rome. Yet her far-reaching influence is evident in the work of contemporary German writers such as Erich Fried and Christa Wolf. Her 1956 collection Invocation of the Great Bearexplores extremes of violence and love, conflict and peace. A child of her time, she lived through the war and then the possibility of an atomic Armageddon. In her final interview just before her death she talked of her writing and her utopian dream of peace: ‘This is something I deeply believe in and it is what I refer to as “A day will come…”. It won’t come and none the less I believe in it. For, if I stop believing in it, I cannot write any more’.

The Disappearance of Snow by Manuel Rivas was first published in Spain in 2009, in a lavish multilingual edition that included the Galician original together with Catalan, Basque and Castilian translations. The opening epigraph ‘And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder, ‘ from ‘A Song of Opposites’ by John Keats, flags up the dichotomies and paradoxical questions addressed through these poems that deal with the tension between past and present, rural and urban culture. Snow is the overarching metaphor. For Rivas the act of writing is a form of uncovering that reveals a new world, like a thaw of snow. Words have the potential to restore what has been lost. Memory is the tool that revivifies humanity: ‘Words come to reclaim what is theirs, / all that was taken from them’, he writes in the opening poem, ‘The Enigmatic Order’. In the light of recent political debates about the role of historical memory in Spain, this process is particularly relevant. ‘We are what we remember’, Rivas insists, reminding us that the personal is always political.

At the centre of the collection the personal takes the form of a series of love poems, which in a flurry of associative images expands the normal romantic rhetoric of the love poem, as in the surreal imagery of ‘My Love is a Suction-Force Pump’. Here the mechanistic metaphor seems to be heir to Lautréamont’s ‘chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’. The associative ideas in poems such as ‘Missed Call’ and ‘Mayday’ emphasize the impossibility of communication, suggesting the loneliness endemic within contemporary culture:

 

Mayday, mayday, mayday! 

Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan! 

Securité, securité, securité. 

 

Siren. Distress call.

 

‘This fear is mine,’ he adds, ‘old childhood companion, the twilight dog / that vomits the colours of the void,’.

A sense of history emanates from The Disappearance of Snow, recalling Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, and the storm of progress that moves between the calamities of the past and the, as yet, unwritten future. Given the present economic situation and Spain’s especial role in it, ‘A History of Money’, seems uncannily prescient. It begins:

 

My cap, on the ground, is the European Bank.

Please don’t throw your sadness in it.

I’m not asking for your eyes.

I’m not a beggar.