Zahia Rahmani has placed two inscriptions at the front of her book “Muslim”: a Novel, one from Foe, in which Susan Barton addresses Friday on the subject of his tongue having been cut so that he cannot speak, and the other from the opening lines of Moby-Dick. We have thus two very different views on the imperial mercantile project, Melville’s vagabond on the one hand and, on the other, Coetzee’s upstanding lady and would-be artist, who speaks of the suffering of the indigenous man through the skill of writer Defoe. We also have a post-Shakespearean national epic of High Romanticism, and a postmodernist novel with metatextual and deconstructive links to a prior work. These characteristics give one a sense not only of Rahmani’s position vis-à-vis anglophone literature but also of the qualities one might seek in “Muslim”: a Novel itself. This is an affinity, across languages, more than an influence, the kind of fellow-feeling that one supposes is the breath of life to a translator.
In what language did Rahmani first read Moby-Dick? Was it among the books she tucked away in her attic library as a girl? In my dream of those days, she is shut away from the world on a winter night in Picardy, rapt in the first French version, published in 1941 by Jean Giono, novelist from Provence. So taken with his author was Giono, that the version came out simultaneously with his own novelistic essay-portrait entitled Pour Saluer Melville, in which Giono depicts the writer on his arrival in London to oversee the publication of White Jacket, imagining “his long, relaxed stride—a bit of a swagger, which he can’t alter; the way he swings his arms and shifts his broad shoulders; the mocking way he holds his head; and the isolation and bitterness of his faraway eyes.” Giono’s fascination with a beloved writer comes through in the detailed attention he pays to what he could not hope to know.
These considerations came to mind recently as my fellow editors at Asymptote, a journal of translated literature, prepared to publish a questionnaire I had written for Matt Reeck, the translator of Rahmani’s “Muslim”: a Novel; and while I’d had reservations about the format, with its tendency to forestall spontaneity and dialectic, unlike a conversation or interview, I managed, over a period of correspondence with the editors, to negotiate for two questions more than the maximum of five that were standard, and also for a relaxation of the word limit per question, producing in the process what the editors called their most in-depth questionnaire to date; and when I sent it off to the translator, to be completed, I understood the piece to be a genuine expression of the envy I quite naturally feel toward an author whose books I admire a great deal—or if it’s not envy exactly, then respect or even awe.
When I received the responses I was struck by what Reeck called, in the email that accompanied them, his coyness, and I wanted to challenge him on the next-to-last question (“to create the label of French-Algerian is also a form of minoritizing writers within French literature per se that does no writer any good but does effect some bad … as a scholarly gesture … that hyphen would only seem to make sense in America”) but the deadline was coming up fast, and Reeck had forbidden us to edit his responses, and said he’d rather we cut something entirely—I would not try to change what he wrote, of course, but along with that coyness, his strictures told a certain story—and the editors decided to run the piece as it stood. I wanted to recontextualize that second-to-last question in terms of examples taken from other works of literature, rather than the clumsy term “French-Algerian,” which I thought had been wilfully misinterpreted by the interviewee. I still think so. I reject Reeck’s implication that by using this hyphenated designation I am participating in an effort to minoritize Zahia Rahmani by creating a label for her, and that I am somehow biased toward an American academic perspective (I am not involved in academia, in the United States or elsewhere). It isn’t so much that Reeck’s answer is hostile, as that it strikes me as an instance of psychological projection of his situation onto his interviewer. I was baffled until it occurred to me that in his responses Reeck must be taking a position in a debate internal to his career as an academic and a professional translator. After all, I told myself, he remains reticent everywhere else in the interview, while lamenting how docile American intellectuals are in public. Finally when I went back through my correspondence with the editors, I found the point at which the offending term was added, and saw that it didn’t come from me at all, but from the blog editor, who never once reminded me while I agonized in all our subsequent conversations about this piece that the term “French-Algerian” had been her addition and not mine, and I regretted going along with the change and taking one for the team, and told myself I definitely wouldn’t be doing this again.
The wind is fresh on deck and salt on the dunes. Sleet ticks at the window where the girl sits and braces herself in a dream of the woman. It is Kabylia, it is Picardy long ago and Paris now. The action through speech of her mother drifts into her head in a Berber word, along with the memory of a drag on a cigarette she took as a teen. She closes the book, picks up her pen.
The interview is here.