Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Amy Sackville: The Still Point

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time - sheer pleasure from beginning to end. The Still Point is a really exceptional first novel and deserved its Orange Prize long-listing.
I’m not a great fan of the omniscient narrator, but in this book it works. We hover over the books’ characters like god in a helicopter eavesdropping on first one and then another across space and time - from an old house ‘freighted with memories’ in England, to the frozen deserts of the arctic. The author uses the narrative device to pull us in. ‘You can draw a little nearer, if you’re very quiet. Put your face close to his, close enough to feel the gentle rumble and stink of his breath; feel the damp warmth of hers on your own cheek. They fall asleep, as many couples do, first twined and then detached; as we rejoin them they have long since undergone this last conscious act, this delicate separation on the very brink of dreaming.’
Four young people; two marriages - one torn apart by arctic ice before it has properly begun, one in danger of foundering on the sunken reefs of past events. For Emily and Edward the other woman is the North Pole; for Julia and Simon it is the house, with its stuffed polar bear in the attic, the boxes of journals and diaries that Julia spends her days and nights among, the specimens of flora and fauna pinned, cased and hung on the wall. Simon has begun to feel that he is one of them. But in the space of a single day, everything is going to change.
I hope Amy Sackville’s publishers, Portobello, are holding on to her very tightly because I think she’s going to be sensational.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Mahmoud Darwish: Unfortunately, it was Paradise

It’s been a significant week for political dates. This weekend was the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the subject of much celebration. But not in the middle east, which was subsequently carved up by the victorious allied forces and land apportioned in ways that have led to most of the conflicts of our recent history - most fundamental of all the partitioning of Palestine without any safeguards for the Palestinian people, twenty per cent of whom are Christian.
May 6th wasn’t just the election, it was the last night of the Palestine Festival of Literature - an amazing event that celebrates the poetry and prose of the middle east, as well as including a number of British and American authors. The line up included Ahdaf Soueif (brilliant short stories as well as the Map of Love), Henning Mankell, Michael Palin, Carmen Callil, Deborah Moggach and Claire Messud.
Palestine has, over the years, produced some brilliant writers and poets including Kalil Gibran. Right at the top would have to be Mahmoud Darwish who died in 2008 and was regarded as the poet laureate and international voice of the Palestinian people - ‘a poet sharing the fate of his people, living in a town under siege, while providing them with a language for their anguish and dreams’. But he always declined to be involved with any form of extremism, deploring the excesses of Hamas. Mahmoud was born in Galilee in either 1941 or 42. Six years later the Israeli army occupied the area, bulldozing over four hundred Palestinian villages with their tanks. Mahmoud’s family were among those who fled over the border into Lebanon to escape the massacres that followed. When they returned, a year later, they discovered that because they had not been there to be ‘counted’ among the survivors, they were illegal immigrants into their own country and became what were described as ‘internal refugees’.
Mahmoud Darwish began writing poetry while still at school, though he was banned from reciting it. Eventually, like so many, he left for a life of permanent exile, stateless and therefore without a passport.
‘All the birds followed
My hand to the barriers of a distant airport.
All the wheatfields
All the prisons
All the white graves
All the borders
All the waving handkerchiefs
All the dark eyes
All the eyes were with me
But they crossed them out of the passport.
Deprived of a name, of an identity,
In a land I tended with both hands?’

But his poetry also celebrates the way that art can transcend oppression - the founding principle of the Palestine Festival of Literature. Mahmoud Darwish is always optimistic, always looking forward.
‘I have witnessed the massacre
I am a victim of a map
I am the son of plain words
I have seen pebbles flying
I have seen dew drops as bombs
When they shut the gates of my heart on me
Built barricades and imposed a curfew
My heart turned into an alley
My ribs into stones
And carnations grew
And carnations grew.

Darwish grew up reading the poetry of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amicai, and there is always an acknowledgement of the shared cultural and historical heritage of the Israeli and the Arab. They all came originally from Mesopotamia, and all acknowledge Abraham as their ancestor. The old testament is an account of shared history. In Darwish’s words:
‘We travel in the chariots of the Psalms, sleep in the tents of the prophets, and are born again in the language of nomads’
And he can ask, in the voice of the murdered Abel (a story which is also told in the Koran), ‘Brother... My brother! What did I do to make you destroy me?’

His latest collection is ‘Unfortunately it was Paradise’ published by the University of California Press. It’s a joint translation by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche and I don’t like it as much as the earlier translations by Abdullah al-Udhari. These new translations are less lyrical, less true to the spirit of the arabic originals. There are infelicities, such as ‘This is my language, this sound is the twinge of my blood.’ But the message always comes through.

In his journal of a visit to Ramallah ‘A River Dies of Thirst’ he writes: "Hope is not the opposite of despair, it is a talent." And in this poetry, written after he had experienced the first of the series of heart attacks that would eventually kill him, there is a fervent affirmation of the existence of hope.
‘What does life say to Mahmoud Darwish?
You lived, fell in love, learned, and all those you will finally love are dead?
In this hymn we lay a dream, we raise a victory sign, we hold a key to the last door,
to lock ourselves in a dream. But we will survive because life is life.’

On the PalFest website there are a number of author’s blogs written by the visiting writers. Most were shocked by what they found and the way that they were treated as they tried to get into Palestine under the auspices of the British Council.
Carmen Callil writes:
Everywhere there are checkpoints and Israeli soldiers, many of them young women, young girls really, all of them draped in weapons, smoking in our faces as they grudgingly allow our bus of writers to proceed from A to B. ....Everywhere we see Jewish Settlements crowding out the old Palestinian towns. There are new settlements and the beginnings of hundreds more. Curfews, roads blocked, areas where only Israelis can go. Towns and villages closed off and hacked to pieces by road blocks, checkpoints and walls. Labels, tickets, permissions, queries, intermittent water, constant harassment and constant questioning’.
Follow the link here for more and for a wonderful, moving video of the final event of the festival, where writers gave short readings.

I’m a great fan of a singer called Reem Kelani - British, but the child of Palestinian refugees. She is also a musicologist who has travelled the world collecting the traditional songs of the Palestinian diaspora. She performs often with Israeli musician Gilad Atzmon and his Orient House ensemble and she often sings settings of the poems of Mahmoud Darwish. There is quite a lot of her music on YouTube, but this is just an introduction.