Translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes
(Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015)
Hisham Bustani’s third collection of fiction, The Perception of Meaning, translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes, is like a house of mirrors at a carnival, reflecting the distortion, absurdity, and maladies of a modern world that worships technology and destroys nature. The book was the co-winner of the prestigious King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies Translation of Arabic Literature Award for 2014 at the University of Arkansas. Bustani’s work is experimental, literary fiction with a razor edge, slicing the tops off of familiar myths, tales, legends, and then, transforming them into visceral, grotesque fables. Hisham Bustani, known in the Arab world for his contemporary, “surreal” view, draws widely upon film, history, politics and literature for inspiration in his flash fiction. Thoraya El-Rayyes, the translator and a writer herself, has translated an intellectually ambitious book, which balances on the tightrope between a philosophical text and linguistic play, into fluid, lyrical English.
It is no accident that Bustani opens his book with a section entitled “Apocalypse Now,” a reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s film, itself a reinterpretation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Bustani’s meta-fictional “Apocalypse Now” there are “no knights here, and the castles are ruins with broken windows.” The new heart of darkness is not Vietnam but our self-reflexive reality, controlled by technology: the internet, the phone, Facebook, and television. We consume others’ images of pain, suffering, violence, revolution: our journey through life is packaged and artificial. Most do not seek awareness or the inner path, like the Sufi poet, Al-Hallaj, whose epigraph opens the book. Even love, sex, beauty are commodified by expectations created by companies: nothing is personal and individual. This serves another prominent theme of the book: how man believes he can tame and control nature, but ultimately destroys and annihilates it, just as he does his fellow man. The book is divided into twelve sections and plays with form, shape, genre, and language: riddles, aphorisms, fable, fairy tale, legend, myth, real news, poetry, Facebook posts, and Youtube images.
Bustani’s short fictions often contain the disturbing shards from the news, full of reports of violence, atrocity, and injustice. For example, why did an ordinary peasant at the World Trade Organization summit in Mexico City in 2003 commit suicide? Lee Kyoung Hae, the simple Korean farmer, was lost in a world that has become controlled by “global markets,” forces bigger than himself that would ruin his livelihood. He acted briefly in an extreme protest and then flared out: “The peasant, whose petrol-soaked clothes caught a spark, dissolved immediately into the soil in a flare of celebration. Part of him became flowers, part of him became migrating birds.”
Violence recoils upon itself since the murderer will be haunted by his crimes; the ghosts will follow him down the streets: “He swats them away but they do not go.” Only when he is himself killed will he then “wake up and join their protest.”
Bustani finds the irony in existing narratives—for example in the German director Herzog’s film, Fitzcarraldo, about a man who loved opera so much he hauled a ship over a mountain in Peru. In Bustani’s version, Fitzcarraldo is not a noble aficionado of opera, but a white colonial who destroyed the trees and exploited the indigenous people:
The White God taught them his intoxicating miracles, so they carried the floating phonograph to where trees patiently await their killer. They were slaughtered by slanted lines across their trunks that meet in the Center, then their blood was gathered to be sent to the Old World and return as radiant junk. As for the opera, it still warbles out of the speakers of bomber airplanes and the tears of trees.
Elsewhere, Bustani retells “Laila and the Wolf,” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” as a sadomasochistic tale. The wolf, not Laila, comes to visit grandma while the hunter is filming grandma having sex through the window with his mobile phone, and then we view the story again as porn images on Youtube. He seems to suggest that the modern story is simply the voyeurism of sex and violence, offered to us from the media. But then we learn that none of what we imagined was true: “Laila hadn’t been going to visit the grandmother that day; she’d had a date with a client. The wolf hadn’t been hungry that day. The grandmother hadn’t been ill. The hunter hadn’t been…” In fact, the story had been thrown away by the child into the trash.
Not only are the old tales obsolete, but people are still destroyed by them. In “Mockery of the Narcissus of the Universe,” a booklouse is made over by plastic surgeons into a “moderately attractive woman.” She found the crown of a princess and placed it on her head, even though there were dead bodies on the road. She would do anything to be a princess, just as women will still do anything to look like “princesses” in our world. The doctor, “her magnificent maker,” chortles as he watches her “silicon balls” jumping up and down. They eventually break and numb her brain, such that it is.
In Bustani’s worlds, the language and symbols of the internet and Facebook have become so casual and promiscuous that they no longer signify real emotion: “How will I know if Like is a passing courtesy, genuine admiration, flirtation, or a hint at something to come?” In “History Will Not Be Made on This Couch,” the narrator watches the Egyptian revolution from his television, while others were acting: “Inside the television, streets are flooding with colorful drops of people, stones and barricades.” The narrator feels increasingly alienated by his own passivity and comments wryly: “The television is on fire and history isn’t being made on this couch.”
The final section is entitled “Salvation.” There are many questions without answers: “And when the answer didn’t come, he broke the mirror with a clenched fist and walked along the path covered in glass shards, looking for another that holds the answer.” I am reminded again of the Indian poet Tagore’s epigraph at the beginning of the book: “I close my eyes…and see.” Maybe Bustani is implying that the only real salvation is the imagination. Slavishly watching reality, or what is manufactured as reality through the internet, media, television, Facebook, Twitter, will make us paranoid, angry, bitter; it will drive us crazy.
The book has found the right home at Syracuse University Press. Bustani’s imaginative journey is also reflected in the careful, deliberate presentation of the bilingual edition. Instead of the more conventional structure of a bilingual reader, which separates one language from another, each story in Arabic is followed by the English translation. The book will especially appeal to the sophisticated reader of modern literature. As for the bilingual reader of both languages, he/she will have the thought-provoking experience of entering the portal twice.
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Gretchen McCullough is a writer and translator, teaching at the American University in Cairo. Her stories and essays have appeared in: The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, NPR, Storysouth and Guernica. Translations in English and Arabic with Mohamed Metwalli include: Nizwa, Banipal, Brooklyn Rail inTranslation and Al-Mustaqbel. Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories from Cairo (2011) and a collection of short stories, Shahrazad’s Tooth, (2013) were published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo. You can read more of her work by visiting her website.