Reviewed by Ghada Mourad
The Penguin’s Song (ghināʾ al-batrīq) tells the story of a family of three whose lives are completely transformed as a result of their displacement out of the old city of Beirut. The twenty-year old son, whose upper body deformation makes his figure and way of walking evocative of a penguin’s, narrates the family’s slow decline. Their new home in the third and uppermost story of a building resembling “a thick short tower” is surrounded by an unpaved sand track that renders every movement a challenge, recalling the stagnation in which the inhabitants of this area dwell. Just like the mother’s cooking, which in the old house was different every day but which in the new has become but a slight variation on the same meal, their lives have become more or less a repetition of the same monotonous routine, with the important difference that the routine is one of decline. The family’s relationships are disintegrating, the father’s sight and general health deteriorating, and they are rapidly eating up their dwindling savings now that the father has declared he is “tired retired and old” and hence will not be looking for a new job having lost his shop in the old city (Daoud, 21). Voted “The Best Lebanese Novel of the Year” by the Lebanese Cultural Club in Paris when it was first published in 1998, its third edition came out in 2012.
The Penguin’s Song is a novel of distance, mediation, and isolation. Distance separates the novel’s characters from their objects of desire. The family yearns to return to their previous lifestyle: the mother repeats that their current life is “all temporary” (Daoud, 8). The narrator peeks through his half opened window to look at the girl in the apartment below him. The father looks at the location of his former shop from a great distance, gazing through the circle he outlines with his fingers. Singling out a part of the city skyline from afar soon proves a futile trick intended to endow the father with power, albeit illusory, over space, because when he visits the area with his son he is utterly disoriented and unable to find his way through the streets.
Throughout the novel, mirrors and windows serve as mediators for the gaze. The narrator and the girl are constantly caught gazing at themselves in mirrors. The narrator peeks at his classmates in the bus’s rearview mirror and at the girl through the windows that separate them. He also stares at the mirror in which she sees her reflection. The three members of this family are snatched from their life in the old city and cast up in an isolated place from which they regularly and longingly gaze at their old neighborhood.
Even as the characters are displaced from their objects of desire, another layer or stretch of distance separates the reader from the text. Indeed, at no moment in the novel does the reader feel that s/he has unhindered access to the novel’s world and characters. None of the characters or places of The Penguin’s Song are named. The absence of proper names, as well as the (intentionally) tedious prose, mediate between the reader and the text in the original Arabic, giving it an air of stagnation and futility. In an interview with Al-Akhbar, Hassan Daoud said that “Ghināʾ al-Batrīq is a literary text from beginning to end, written with an eraser as it is written with a pen.”1 The absence of important signifiers such as “the war,” which causes the family’s displacement and tribulations and haunts the entire novel, and “the penguin,” which the narrator resembles, implicate that erasures are as significant as written words in this novel. The protagonist is said to resemble “one of those shore birds that hop on their little feet, since the smallness of their wings keep them from flying” (Daoud, 44). Furthermore, Daoud is self-confessedly difficult to read. The author states, “I could not write a line that does not draw attention to itself, in addition to its significance for the course of the novel. As though I am in front of mirrors, longing to see everything in them complete. Whole. It has been an arduous writing that needs patience and perseverance.”2
To translate a novel in which distance is so central seems no easy task. It is often stated that a translation stands at a certain distance from the original, and therefore the translator here runs the risk of increasing the distance separating the elements of the narrative. Fortunately, this is not so much the case for the ingenious translation of this novel by accomplished translator and academic Marilyn Booth. The ambiguities and difficulties that saturate the original, conveying the monotonous lives of the novel’s characters and echoing the narrator’s insipid stream of consciousness and tense emotional state, here give way to an elegant prose that complements the original rather than replicating its (intentional) dullness with the help of concise language and refined sentences. Rather than adding an extra layer of mediation that alienates the Anglophone reader, the translation stands, vis-à-vis the original, as “a supplementary and harmonious” version, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase (77). Marilyn Booth’s translation renews and transforms the original so that it matures under her pen.
The narrator, who compares copies of the same text for a living, checking them for similarities and differences, conceives of the reading experience in terms of distance, the same way he deals with people in his life:
As I read anecdotes, tales, vignettes of people’s lives, dialogues, poems, and poetry duels, I could decide whether these were words on a page or real events in which real lives unfolded. Either way, I could be at a distance. I could play listener when I wanted to regard what I read as words; or I could play observer or witness when I decided to take them as things really happening to folk of old. Listener or witness: just as I was in school, or on the trip, and whether standing or sitting. But always between me and what I saw there was an empty space, a supplementary space I made sure to leave in place, just in case I need it…I had to leave an empty space between them and me so that I could remain apart from their glee because I could not endure its forcefulness (Daoud, 54).
This is not the case for the reader’s relation to the narrator. This narrator reveals a great deal about himself, his irritation with his parents, and his acute awareness of his handicap even in his most intimate moments, in a prose that annihilates the distance between the narrator and his readers. Reading both the original and the English translation of The Penguin’s Song can be an experience very much evocative of the narrator’s work, but the two texts resist this kind of comparison, as their complementarity soon emerges to the bilingual reader. Booth’s translation expands the limits of the English language and lets it be influenced by Arabic, matching the original like “fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together” to use Benjamin’s terms again (78). These moments of symbiosis transpire when the connotation of an expression is translated into English. Such is the case with proverbs, as when the mother declares, “We eat our own flesh if no pennies come afresh” (Daoud, 39).
When the narrator confesses, “I perceived somehow that this was my final image and I would never another one,” and at a later moment admits that he has a similar desire for the girl: “I will go on seeing her as little, as I love her to be,” he betrays the narrative’s longing for immaturity, a longing that soon reveals itself as impossible in the face of the change occurring in the lives of other characters (Daoud, 32, 224). This text matures through the “afterlife” it acquires thanks to Booth’s translation (Benjamin, 71). Just as the narrator fails to arrest time in order to be able to preserve the characters, including himself, in that suspended state, so too the translation, as an afterlife of the original, perpetuates its life, lets it mature, and transports it into another time and milieu.
The narrator articulates succinctly the nature of his desire towards the girl: “I am a he who desires the body whom desire has not yet caught” (Daoud, 65). This statement aptly applies to translation, which desires to arouse every text’s longing for an afterlife. Marilyn Booth’s translation of The Penguin’s Song has done just that.
1All translations from the Arabic are the author’s.
2The citation is excerpted from the same interview.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken, 1985. 69-82.
Daoud, Hassan. The Penguin’s Song. Translated by Marilyn Booth. San Francisco: City Lights Books, November 2014.