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From the Translator: Alessandro Spina’s Libyan Epic

By André Naffis-Sahely

Benghazi,sometime in 1979. Muammar Qaddafi begins tightening his grip on Libyan society: on the one hand, redistributing land and expropriating slum lords—largely benefitting average Libyans—while on the other, executing dissidents and creating a brutal police state. He also starts to target “foreign” entrepreneurs, among them a certain Basili Khuzam. In his early fifties, Khuzam spends most of his days running his father's textile factory, which is situated next to a fonduk in the heart of Benghazi. The business employs roughly a hundred people and is one of the city's few successful local industries. Looking out of his ground floor office window, Khuzam must have mused how radically his country had changed over the past fifty years. Born in 1927, Khuzam had witnessed Benghazi transform from a sleepy Ottoman backwater into one of the jewels of the Italian colonial project, replete with Art Deco cinemas and shopping arcades, then an independent monarchy, and finally the Libyan Arab Republic, ruled by the charismatic chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Muammar Qaddafi. The metamorphoses had left a mark on Benghazi's topography. The very street Khuzam lived on, for instance, had been known as Shara el Garbi—“Street of the West”—during the Turkish era, then had been renamed Corso Sicilia by the Italians, who had demolished eight fonduks to make way for their modern whitewashed apartment blocks, and had finally been re-baptized Shara Omar Mukhtar in the 1950s in honor of the resistance hero.

One evening, Aftim Saba, a young protégé of Khuzam's, pays him a visit to inform him that leaflets naming his family and business as alien interests are being distributed around town. People have started to vanish. It's time to leave. In a sense, Gaddafi's revolutionaries weren't wrong: the People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was everything Khuzam was not: socialist, nationalist, and Sunni Muslim. Khuzam, however, was a Syrian Maronite who spoke French, Italian, English, and Arabic. Khuzam's father, a self-made man who'd left his native Syria as a penniless teenager, had been close to the Italian regime during the colonial era and he'd had his son educated in Italy. A plaque outside the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Benghazi, one of the largest churches in North Africa, listed Khuzam senior as one of the donors who'd helped finance its construction between 1929 and 1939.

Not long after Saba's warning, Khuzam left Libya and relocated first to Paris and then to Italy, where, unbeknownst to anyone outside a very intimate circle in Benghazi, he had been building an impressive literary reputation since the late 1950s under the pseudonym “Alessandro Spina.” Encouraged and published by Alberto Moravia in Nuovi Argomenti, Khuzam had published his first novel, Tempo e Corruzione (“Time and Decay”), in 1962, which mostly eulogized his student days in Milan, as well as a translation of The City of Brass (Scheiwiller, 1963), a tale excerpted from the One Thousand and One Nights. Khuzam had worked steadily on these projects ever since he'd left Milan at twenty seven and returned to Benghazi to take over the family business in 1954. It had been an occasionally trying experience. He had little time off from the factory and the country he'd returned to lacked a literary culture. A diary entry from 1958 reads: “Books and newspapers censored by government: unable to receive Le Monde and Les Temps Modernes.” Despite these obstacles and others, Khuzam was secretly busy on a project close to his heart, although hardly anyone in Benghazi knew what he was up to.

To most, “il Dottore,” or “the Doctor,” as he was known, was just a factory manager: well read, but generally unassuming and intensely private. Yet Khuzam had been spending most of his free time working on a grand opus that would consume fifty years of his life: I confini dell'ombra (The Confines of the Shadow), a sequence of eleven novels and short story collections chronicling Libya's turbulent history, from the fall of Ottoman rule in 1912 to the discovery of the country's vast oil and gas reserves in the 1960s. Khuzam had sent the first two installments of this epic to small but prestigious presses run by admirers in Italy and had published The Young Maronite in 1971 and Omar’s Wedding in 1973. As a testament to the climate of repression at the time, while Khuzam had also written the third installment, The Nocturnal Visitor, as early as 1972, he decided to shelve it until 1979 since the book's protagonist was heavily based on Omar Mukhtar and might have therefore aroused the ire of Qaddafi's censors.

In 2013, just a week after Khuzam's death, I signed a contract with Darf Books to translate the entirety of The Confines of the Shadow, which runs to a daunting 1,300 pages. I decided to split the epic into three volumes, following the plan Khuzam used when the Italian publisher Morcelliana resurrected all eleven volumes—published by almost as many different imprints over the course of thirty years—and re-issued them in an omnibus edition, which won the Premio Bagutta in 2006, establishing Khuzam (or rather “Spina”) as a literary giant. Khuzam had structured The Confines of the Shadow according to three distinct periods: The Colonial Conquest (1912-1927), The Colonial Era (1927-1947) and Independence (1947-1964). Thus I decided that the English edition should follow this scheme, and I spent much of 2014 translating Volume 1 of the epic, which groups together the aforementioned The Young Maronite, Omar's Wedding and The Nocturnal Visitor, with volumes 2 and 3 to follow in 2016 and 2017.

Translating Khuzam in the immediate wake of his death has meant that my research has been limited to his published work—especially his Work Diary, which his Italian publisher issued in 2010 and which collects all the entries in Khuzam's journals related to the novels of the “Cyrenaican saga” as he called his epic before he settled on a final title—as well as a few chance encounters, including most recently with Aftim Saba, a retired physician who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. Aside from building a profile of this fairly mysterious writer through his diaries and novels, finding the right tone was perhaps my most important task when it came to the actual translation. I began by looking into Khuzam's genealogy of influences: he adored Balzac and Stendhal and thought of Svevo and Conrad as kindred spirits. Since Khuzam was a gifted essayist, I was also helped along by his penultimate collection of essays, L'ospitalità intellettuale (Intellectual Hospitality) (Morcelliana, 2012)—a title inspired by Louis Massignon's statement that “one shouldn't annex the other, but rather become his guest”—which treats the reader to wonderfully eclectic pieces on Synesius of Cyrene, Al-Ghazali, Fontaine, Flaubert, and Mann, among many others. In a way, Khuzam's choice of subjects told me everything I needed to know: a taste for the classical, but not for the arch, a passion for the other, but not for the exotic, a penchant for fables, but not for overt sentimentality, etc. Above all, however, I learned that Khuzam had spent a great deal of his time re-reading Proust, in particular Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained).

As such, while some of the English turns I employed flow from the rhythm of Khuzam's highly-wrought Italian, I also attempted to let Scott Moncrieff's Remembrance of Things Past leave its mark on my translation. In a way, Proust and Scott Moncrieff were perfectly matched. As Jean Findlay argued in the pages of The Guardian: both were “cultivated, literary, closet homosexual[s] who had witnessed and appreciated the high point of the fin-de-siecle civilisation that fell headlong into war.” Similarly, it eventually dawned on me—although strangely enough this occurred long after I'd put Volume 1 to bed—that Khuzam and I also had a great deal in common: we're both equally at home in European and Middle Eastern traditions, chose to write in the languages we were educated in rather than the ones we were raised in, and we both adopted a staunchly cosmopolitan outlook in defiance of more jingoistic times. Perhaps I'm making too much of these so-called similarities. Maybe translators simply start to look like their authors in the way dogs come to resemble their owners, or, better yet, maybe the similarities were there all along and it simply took a book to bridge them. I'm open to interpretations.


Published Sep 9, 2015   Copyright 2015 André Naffis-Sahely

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