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From the Translator: David Ball and Nicole Ball on Abdourahman A. Waberi’s “Passage of Tears”

By David and Nicole Ball

The French-Djiboutian writer Abdourahman A. Waberi was one of the writers to whom J.M.G. Le Clézio dedicated his Nobel Prize in his acceptance speech. Waberi has won many literary prizes and honors; his work has been translated into German, Italian, and Portuguese. He has received lavish praise from most of the major literary journals in France for Passage des larmes, his latest novel. He is becoming better known in the US, too. His previous novel, In the United States of Africa—set in a wealthy, united Africa, while the wretched of the earth huddle in Euramerica, tear each other apart or desperately try to emigrate—was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2009 with a preface by Percival Everett in the Cultural Services of the French Embassy's “French Voices” series, which awarded a grant for its translation and publication. Excerpts of our translation appeared in Beacons, Calaloo and The Literary Review.

The title Passage des larmes / Passage of Tears is an amalgam of Porte des Larmes (“Gate of Tears”), the name of the strait connecting Africa to the Arabian peninsula—“Bab el Mandeb” in Arabic, as Waberi informs us—and the Passages of Walter Benjamin, who haunts the book in the strangest ways. Waberi plays on many genres and forms of writing with great virtuosity in this work: spy novel, diary, travel notebook, tales and legends, childhood reminiscences; as well as sermons, religious incantations and prayers . . . and finally historical and geopolitical reflections: for that “Gate” or “Passage” is crucial for the passage of the world’s oil, making Djibouti, that impoverished little country on the Horn of Africa, "the size of a handkerchief," as de Gaulle famously said, a place of great strategic importance.

The allusions to history and the description of Djibouti today, along with the moving evocation of past family and community life, lead us to a sympathetic understanding of this country. Passage of Tears is a poetic tribute to the unique nomadic culture and dogged ingenuity of Djibouti's people through the centuries, on their hot, infertile land.

It is also a political novel. The often ironic voice of Djibril (see our excerpt) carries a clear attack on colonialism, imperialism and globalization. And the satiric treatment of Muslim fundamentalism (parody of sermons, religious quibbling and relentless imprecations) is one of its main components. Like all really good parody, it is not always purely comic: the sermonizing, and above all the prayers and invocations have a certain beauty that gives complexity to the novel. Still, the horror of fanaticism is clear. Like Montesquieu's and Voltaire's, Waberi's parody serves the cause of tolerance.

All this is conveyed through an increasingly tense counterpoint between two totally different voices. One is that of Djibril, a young Djiboutian voluntarily exiled in Montreal, where he lives with his Jewish Quebecois girlfriend, who first introduced him to the work of Walter Benjamin. "Djib," as he calls himself, has been sent back to Djibouti to make a geo-political report on the region for Adorno Location Scouting, an “economic intelligence firm” based in Denver: he introduces himself in the excerpt appearing in this January issue of WWB—one voice in a polyphonic novel, as we say in our translators’ note. His voice alternates with that of a shadowy figure rotting in a prison cell somewhere in the “Devil’s Islets” off the coast of Djibouti, intoning invocations to Allah, incantations, condemnations, imprecations, and mounting threats to "Djib," whose slightest actions he somehow seems to know . . . We sense early on that he is actually Djibril’s twin brother Djamal, and later, Djamal himself confirms our guess. However, little by little, as he writes—for he is engaged in transcribing the sermons of his Master, his cellmate—another text, another writing, emerges on the page in palimpsest, to his stupefaction: “The Book of Ben,” or Walter Benjamin.

The unreligious Djibril first gives us geographical and geopolitical descriptions of the Horn of Africa—but then, too, poetic evocations of his childhood in Djibouti, his mother, his childhood Jewish soulmate David, and above all of his storytelling grandfather Assod. (The transmitter of family and tribal memory, the figure of the grandfather has a strong, recurring presence in Waberi's work.) Meanwhile the other, fanatically Muslim voice is increasingly taken over by the poetic evocation of the life of “Ben,” the Jewish exile who, like the exiled ex-Muslim Djibril, came to an untimely death. For Djib is assassinated by his brother’s Islamist organization at the end, exactly as Djamal has predicted.

Palimpsest, polyphony . . . For such a work, we think the principal “task of the translator” (to use the title of Benjamin's famous essay) is to find distinctive voices in English which affect the reader just as the original voices affect the French reader. The task of turning the novel’s poetic passages into good poetic English and its ironies into effective ironic English presents problems for the translator. We’ll be engaged in solving these problems for the next few months: we’re happy to report that Passage of Tears will be published some time in 2011 by Seagull Press, an excellent independent publishing house based in Calcutta and London and distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press.

Published Jan 6, 2011   Copyright 2011 David and Nicole Ball

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