Karamazov Brothers: Multiple Translations

Fyodor Karamazov sired three legitimate sons from two marriages and an illegitimate, epileptic son, Smerdyakov, from a mentally retarded, homeless girl.  Fyodor’s oldest son, Dimitri, was from his first marriage.  Dimitri was as lustful and epicurean as his father.  They even vied over the same women.  Ivan and Alexey were from Fyodor’s second marriage.  Ivan was a cold rationalist who warmed up to his brothers only toward the end of the novel.  Alexey was a novice priest who was close and warm to everyone. Smerdyakov grew up to be Fyodor’s servant.  Smerdyakov killed his master and eventually himself, leaving Dimitri to pay for a crime he did not commit.

The Brothers Karamazov or the Karamazov Brothers is the last novel that Dostoyevsky authored. The novel was serialized in the Russian Messenger. It took Dostoyevsky two years to complete it. Four months after completing it, Dostoyevsky died.  The Karamazov Brothers attracted significant attention from the Russian readership before it became an essential part of world literature.  This was because of multiple reasons chief among which: the novel came out after Dostoyevsky established his reputation as a great novelist; it centered on relevant issues to the nineteenth century Russia (i.e., God, morality, and free will); and its characters mirrored the author’s individual and background a great deal.

Globally, the Karamazov Brothers had a deep influence on writers, philosophers, and artists.  For instance, Sigmund Freud considers it the most magnificent novel ever written and was fascinated by the book for its oedipal themes.  And Kafka calls himself and Dostoyevsky “blood relatives” because of the Karamazov’s existential motifs. Even Tolstoy, according to Joyce, despite his reservations on Dostoyevsky’s artistic accomplishments, admired the novel greatly.

The Karamazov Brothers was translated multiple times.  Nonetheless, this analysis draws on three translations only:  Constance Garnett’s, Andrew R. MacAndrew’s, and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s.  Further, the scope of this analysis is delimited to the second paragraph of the first chapter in the first book.  At the outset, the reader of the three translations will recognize that Garnett’s translation aims to convey the content in a polished Anglicized manner.  For instance, Garnett names the first book The History of a Family, not lending any attention to any sense of humor, whereas, MacAndrew and Pevear and Volokhonsky do.  The former names it A Peculiar Family History and the latter name it A Nice Little Family.

Although a minuscule sample, the second paragraph provides an insight on how the three translations significantly differ.  For instance, the syntactic structure in Garnett’s translation is firm, polished, and gives a special attention to flow.  Garnett uses commas and avoids the jarring M-dashes, unlike the other two. Additionally, she uses adjectives both sparingly and sophisticatedly. To draw parallel examples, Garnett uses the following adjectives to describe Fyodor Karamazov’s individual and position:  “worthless puny weakling… ill-natured buffoon… parasitic position…position.”  Meanwhile, MacAndrew uses “worthless freak … nasty buffoon … reputation as sponger … lowly position.” As for Pevear and Volokhonsky, they use “worthless runt…dignity as a sponger … social position.”

The register of Garnett’s translation represents how the educated class of the early twentieth century England spoke. She translated Fyodor’s indiscriminate lust for women to “run after any petticoat,” whereas, MacAndrew puts it as “chase any skirt,” and Pevear and Volokhonsky render it: “hang on any skirt.”

Undoubtedly, the three translations do give a great deal of attention to delivering the content.  Nonetheless, Garnett’s rendition tends to muffle the voice of the simple-minded Russian narrator into that of a cultured Englishman. Trying to avoid Anglicizing the text, MacAndrew wound up Americanizing it.  In my opinion, his translation reads like a contemporary American text.

As for Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, it strikes me as one.  In other words, the idiomaticity of the English rendition still shows some roughness of unpolished and un-localized translation.  For example, a combination like “dignity as a sponger” sounds both antiquated and oxymoronic. This is because, in an effort to preserve the tone of the original text (irony in this case), Pevear and Volokhonsky developed a set of guidelines.  One of them was not to use any English word that was admitted into Oxford English Dictionary after 1910.  According to Pevear and Volokhonsky, “other translators smooth it out.  We do not.”

To me, translation can always come closer to the original text.  Nonetheless, it will never attain fidelity.  This is simply because fidelity does not exist. Further, English has been lately unreceptive to any enrichment coming into it through translation. This is largely attributed to the measure publishers adopt inflexibly: a successful translation must read like original.  Hence, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s approach should not only be acclaimed but must also be supported.

Despite above, I still prefer Garnett’s translation.  Notwithstanding its muffling to the polyphony of the registers of different characters, let alone the narrator, and its general oversight of Dostoyevsky’s subtle humor, Garnett’s translation does not feel like one.  I enjoy reading it as a novel that has been authored in English and not translated into it.  Should this mean anything, it means that I have sadly become part of a culture I used to resist. My artistic inclination runs counter to my critical cognition.  I am aware that my preference is biased by my memories of growing up reading Garnett’s translations.

Two Voices by Gibran Khalil Gibran

Overall, I am a big fan of Gibran.  However, his poem “Two Voices” is my uncontested favorite.  In the early 1960s, the poem was turned into a song lyric, and I listen to it all the time! My emotional attachment to the poem, Gibran’s deep romanticism, and the unbridgeable gap between the Arabic poetry and the western poetry, particularly English, imposed insuperable hurdles on translating the poem.

Although “Two Voices” is written in couplet format unlike the classical Arabic poetry, which is written in column format, both the rhyme and rhythm of the poem are foreign to the English poetry.  Further, to provide idiomatic translation, the poeticism of the original poem stood a good chance to be compromised if not altogether butchered.  As a result, not only I had to fashion an action plan but I also needed to base my plan on a priority list that included the most valuable elements I needed to save from the “rubble” of the destroyed original (Peden 154).

This week’s reading came in handy.  It helped me conclude my emotional battle with myself.  It prepared me to “do violence” to the original poem (Peden 143).  I became aware that I had to “destroy” the original poem to “create” its translation (ibidem).  Boase’s insights were no less helpful.  They expanded the focus of my translation to include translating the literariness of the poem along with its meanings. Subsequently, my task became harder: I needed to outfit my translation into a style that keeps most of its literary features and, at the same, time suits it for the English readership.  To that end, I “reconstructed” the poem in four un-compartmentalized phases: content, imagery and idiomaticity, style, and overall polishing.

In the first phase, I stayed close to the source text “literalistically.” In the second phase, I attempted to reconcile imagery with idiomaticity.  In the third phase, I balanced shape with content. And in the fourth phase, I took the poem for a test drive: I read it to my colleagues in the English department at my school and asked them to guess who wrote it.  Two of them responded: “this sounds like you, Wanis!”  I believe I know what this meansJ.  I truly believe that translating poetry is the ultimate test for a translator’s skill repertoire. To put it bluntly, I feel the Arabic poetry at a level that is too high for my translation skills or anybody else’s to reach. Below is the fourth Phase.  Enjoy!

Hand me the flute…sing along…forget what we both said;

Talking is only dust blown in the air…spare me what you did.

Did you abandon the palaces…take the forest for home?

Did you follow the creeks…climb the rocks?

Did you bathe in fragrance…dry yourself with sunlight?

Did you drink dawn’s wine in ether goblet?

Did you spend your evening sitting among the vines,

Where the clusters dangled like golden chandeliers?

They’re water for the thirsty…food for the hungry;

They’re honeydew…fragrance…wine for the desirous.

Did you make the grass your bed…the air your blanket?

Did you spend the night indifferent to the future…forgetful of the past?

Was the silence of the night a sea whose waves echoed in your ear?

Was in the chest of the night a heart…throbbing in your lair?

Hand me the flute… sing along…forget malady and remedy;

People are only poetry…but written by water.

I wish I knew what use is in crowding with others…

In tumultuous arguing…in objection…in opposition.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Murph’s mom gets Bartle to promise her that he would bring her son safe from the war in Iraq.  He does not.  Gruff, foulmouthed Sergeant Sterling knows all along that Murph is a dead man.  He punches Bartle in the face for the false promise he made to Murph’s mom.  His war experience informs him that such a promise must not be made.

In Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Murph is killed and his body is severely mutilated as he wanders off naked at night in the city. Bartle and Sterling eventually find his body with the help of some native cartwright.  Instead of hauling his body back to their camp, they sink it in the river.  Sterling kills the cartwright and later himself.  Bartle returns home—a total mess—to serve a five-year sentence in a prison on a military base.

In a brilliantly structured novel, Powers paints panoramic scenes of the war both on the ground and through the mind of the narrator—Bartle.  As Bartle narrates the macabre story of the war, he neither blames nor takes sides.  He aims to make the readers see the war for what it is and not necessarily make sense of it.  At the end of the day, people perceive reality differently.

Although the Powers’s readers know at an early point in the novel of what happens to Murph, their desire to read through the novel grows stronger.  Powers’s ability to paint live scenes is what captivates readers’ attention.  It transcends the banal scheme of creating suspense by causing the readers to hanker after knowing what is going to happen next!  In addition, Powers employs the flashback technique effectively. Not only he visits reality but he also re-views it.  Furthermore, his alternation between two different registers in the language brings both depth and reality to his work. To me, should the Yellow Birds be credited for singularity, its ability to throw its readers head over heels into a mental warzone would be the reason.

Translating Testimonials: Which Culture Should be De-centered?

How much of a leeway, if any, do translators have in translating testimonials?  To me, this is no easy question to answer.   Although testimonials are literary, creative works, the nature of this genre may restrict the translators’ creative freedom when they render testimonials into other languages.  Testimonials are literary witnesses.  Can we really temper with a witness’s testimony?

Answering the question above is not a simple task either, especially when testimonials are translated into a hegemonic language such as English (Ricoy 581).  Attempting to answer this question automatically causes us to regress to the age-old “fidelity v. transparency” debate, where the parameters of such debate expand to include the cultures of the source text and target audience—which culture should be “de-centered” (Ricoy 578)?

Translating Zakaria Tamer’s work, let alone his testimonials, will definitely test the skill set of any translator.  Although Tamer’s writing style is renowned for its simplicity, his testimonials are replete with complex references.  Some of those references can only be understood by politically oppressed, human-suffering Arabs who are widely read in and deeply familiar with their heritage.  Tamer’s writing is heavily inspired by Arab folklore. This makes translating his work more of a cultural match-making than a linguistic exercise. 

The two passages I translated (below) may make an enjoyable reading for the English-speaking readership.  Nonetheless, the indiscernible cultural references in the English text will not enable the English-speaking reader to experience the cultural evocations’ turmoil the Arabic reader is likely to experience.  Now you know which culture my translation de-centered! 

Zakaria Tamer: A Couple of Testimonials

Zakaria Tamer’s work mainly covers the genres of short story and children literature.  He is widely read in the Middle East because of his overly simplistic style and folklore-like children tales. Below is a translation for a couple of his works.


Once upon a time, there lived a king who was famous for his love of killing his subjects and of looking at their dead bodies.  One day during spring, he stood in the middle of the garden of his palace and ordered the sparrows that were returning to their nests to sing him their best tune.  Promptly, the sparrows responded out of fear.  However, they proceeded to bark, caw, and bray.  The king became very angry and asked his guards to shoot the sparrows and cut down all the trees in the garden where the sparrows had their nests.  He then entered his palace and stood in front of one of the many mirrors that decorated the walls.  As he was admiring himself, he said to his mother, “I wish you gave birth to a thousand sons like me.”  His mother responded: “begetting children is tiresome.  It requires effort and being up all night.  However, I was always interested in begetting children.  It was your father who forgot that he was married and preferred to mount both his friends and foes.”  Then the king’s mother smiled sheepishly as she imagined her grandson saying to his mother, “why did you not bring to life thousands and thousands of wonderful children like me?” In her head, she heard his mother telling him: “that was no fault of mine, son.  It is your father who showed no interest in me and dedicated his life to killing those who agreed and disagreed with him.”

The Nearly Expected Day

I felt sympathy for someone who lived millions of tiring years and did not die.  I suggested to him to retire and get all the rest he desired. I was surprised that he took my suggestion.  He enthusiastically retired from all his positions and altogether quit working.  He, however, requested me to take his place, so that chaos would not prevail. I unwillingly agreed, for I love to be lazy and hate to do any type of work.  I started my work by asking all the people on earth to live peacefully, kindly and calmly.  Nonetheless, they did not pay any attention to me and continued to slaughter each other happily.  My work became confined to eating, sleeping, talking to the black birds, and waiting for the earth to become a graveyard.

General Reflections on Translation

Among the most common assumptions about translation is that it is a standalone science and it also depends on a comprehensive theory of language that includes all genres, audiences and use circumstances.  If ever a science, translation draws on many disciplines chief among which are linguistics, philology, anthropology and psychology. 

The difficulty facing the formulation of a comprehensive theory of translation is that translation occurs in the brain.  A lot occurs there undetected.  Nero-linguistics is an area of research that is still in its embryonic phase.  In addition, our knowledge of linguistics and culture equivalence is lacking a great deal.  To formulate a theory on translating, we need to form an acceptable theory on culture in the first place.  Nonetheless, linguistics contributed to translation in two major ways:  first, applying the findings of linguistics to the practice of translation and second, establishing the framework of the linguistic theory of translation. 

To me, translation is a talent with a specific set of skills. Such a talent is disposed to facing the challenge of finding the closest natural equivalent in the target language.  Subsequently, translation should transfer a complete transcript of ideas, preserve the style, manner and character of the original text, and maintain all the ease of the original composition.  This requires both knowledge and cultural sensitivity.  

Meeting the above criteria dictates that the translator must consider the need of using the words in a culturally acceptable manner.  As a result, he/she needs to believe that the context, not the focal terms, is what controls the meaning.   Also, he/she needs to be cognizant of the absence of complete synonyms.  Additionally, he/she needs to be aware that the language is a part of its culture.  It changes with it.  Subsequently, the subcultural registers are mutable as well.  Too, the translator needs to master the essential modes of discourse: narration, description, argumentation and conversation.

The approaches of translation are mainly two types.  The first type aims to maintain fidelity to the source text.  It is also known as literal translation, formal equivalent translation or word-for-word translation.   As for the second type, it aims to convey the meaning of the source text.  It is also known as free translation, sense-for-sense translation or functional equivalent translation.

The formal equivalent approach requires a lot from the reader.  Such a reader needs to be well-versed in the source text’s culture, customs, proverbs and the different subcultural registers.   On the other hand, the functional equivalent approach causes the reader to be totally dependent on the translator.  Thus, the reader may at times fall prey to the translator’s shortcomings such as his/her biases and misunderstandings.

As translation always loses, trying to merge the two approaches above into a hybrid method compounds the problem.  It confuses the sentence- referencing, spoils the uniformity of the translation and eventually creates more kinks than it flattens.  This surely agrees to the old saying: “when you are in the middle, you are shot by both sides!”   

Equivalence Theories in Translation: Directional v. Natural

According to some linguists, equivalence is an illusion of symmetry between languages, which hardly exists beyond the proper of vague approximation. It also compounds the basic problems of translation. However, the concept of “equal value” was not fronted in European theorizing on translation before the Renaissance. Prior to that, translation performed as a means to enriching the target text. In what was later called “value hierarchy,” translation went from Hebrew to Greek, from Greek to Latin and then from Latin to the different vernaculars.

Equivalence became a formalized theory with the rise of “textual stabilization.” Such stabilization materialized as a direct result of the prevalence of printing. Prior to that, the texts experience a sort of instability during manual copying. To me, equivalence is meeting its demise on the hands of modern technology where the text went back to experience even a higher level of instability.  Think of what electronic re-production does to a particular text such in the case of emailing, blogging and tweeting.

Equivalence”, as a concept, totally depends on the context. For instance (in a bad luck sense), Friday the thirteenth in the English cultures equals Tuesday the thirteenth in Spanish cultures. Subsequently, if the day is meant chronologically, it will have to be translated directionally (Friday in Spanish). Otherwise, if the phrase means to express bad luck, rendering Friday the thirteenth into Tuesday the thirteenth is definitely a better choice for a Spanish translation. The examples go on.  Suffice it to say, this contextual concept of equivalence is what caused Cicero to alternate between operative equivalence and directional equivalence.

It is also worth mentioning that the work of structuralist linguists compounds the problem to the point that it may not be even possible for translation to exist.  For example, in his “parole v. langue” approach, Ferdinand de Saussure argues that “value” is different from “signification.” To elucidate his argument, Saussure contends that the value of the knight in the chess game is measured by how many points it is worth compared to the other pieces. However, its signification depends on its location on the chessboard. By the same token, sheep is different than mutton in both signification and value in English, whereas it is the same in French. Hence, according to Saussure, the whole notion of equivalence may not even exist in an interlingual sense.

Additionally, the Saussurean approach to meanings centers on the concept that words acquire their values by the absence of the meanings they do not denotes. In other words, the word “sheep” in English denotes an animal that is different than a cow, horse or donkey, and so on. It also refers to the animal as a whole and not just its meat.  That said, the structuralists’ componential analysis adds another layer of difficulty. One unsolvable issue about it is that it presumes that all speakers of the original text have mastered all the contextual significations that the composition or the words therein assume.

Directional equivalence is a one-way relationship that the source text dictates to the target text. Nevertheless, natural equivalence is more reciprocal. For example, choosing between sheep and mutton is seemingly more directional per context, whereas universal bad luck days seem to be natural!  Natural equivalence, arguably, exists usually with a touch of direction or artificiality.  At times, going directly from a source text to a target text may result in non-natural translation.  Subsequently, rephrasing the text in its source language may prove necessary to arriving at a natural equivalence rendition.

According to Koller, a Swiss linguist, equivalence is what a translator decides at the time of translating. In other words, it does not pre-exist the translation.  It happens right there.  He also argues that the equivalences are not restricted to two types. According to him, there are five frames for equivalence relations: first, the denotative frame, which is based on extra linguistic factors; second, the connotative frame, which is based on the way the source text is expressed; third, the text-normative frame, which is based on changeable textual linguistic norms; fourth, the pragmatic frame, which is based on the characteristics of the receiver of the target text; and finally, the formal frame  which deals with the formal aesthetic qualities of the source text.

The parameters/frames above suggest that the translator chooses the type of equivalence that is most appropriate to the dominant function of the source text.  As a result, and according to some linguists, a source text could be translated differently to different audiences. Thus, one way to look at the type of translation, in terms of the facility it maintains in the target language, is to ask: what decision has the translator made?  Has the translator moved the author (as what he/she means) towards the reader or has the translator moved the reader towards the author?

For instance, “the stove is on” is a statement that could mean “please turn off the stove, before you leave the house.” At times, such a statement could mean “there are people in the house (in the sense that it is not deserted), or the stove is working.  Such linguists argue that translating the implicature may at times be necessary, notably when the receiver is unaware of the context or the functional import. Others, however, argue that a translator is not an explicator. He/she should let the receiver work!


Short Stories from Woman on the Grass by Salwa Bakr : Translated by Wanis Shalaby

1-The Woman, the Boy and the Dog

From amongst the graves, where the living dwell on top of the dead, came the woman, the mother of the boy who owned the dog.  She was holding a large tin tray whose edges were rusting out.  It was full of yellow lupine seeds.  She cast a wide look, searching for a grassy spot where she could set her stand.  Her son walked in worn-out shoes. Each one of them was big enough to accommodate both his feet.  The boy’s eyes were following a line of ants carrying a small dead beetle. The scene looked like a funeral procession.  As for the dog, it raised its nose into the air, sniffing away and looking with disapproval at a chicken hawk soaring in the sky while holding a small bird in its talons. The woman sat on a small mound under a tree whose falling autumnal leaves covered the ground. She whispered to herself as the cold wind penetrated her bones: “winter’s heralds!”

2-The Old Detective Is Busy Thinking of Work

From the other side of the road that separates the city of the living from the city of the dead came the old detective.  He strolled, putting his hand in his pocket for a short while before taking it out to roll the tip of his moustache, then putting his hand back in his pocket again. He continuously did that, while looking at the ground. He blew long breaths angrily through his nostrils.  He was lost in his thoughts.  He wondered how he could come up with five cases in three days for his lieutenant.

He asked himself: “how could I come up with two cases of prostitution, one case of begging and two other random cases in three days…what a son of a bitch…does he think that I can pull those cases out of a hat…does he just want to get a promotion at any cost, including mine?” He spat on the ground and trod his spit with his heavy shoe.

He began to calm his anger down by telling himself: “God will conjure those cases for me…either today or tomorrow a fight will break out somewhere… it may break out among the gamblers at El-Asyooty coffee shop or among the “high” at El-Samalooty hashish den.” He resolved to pay those two places a visit later that night.  He also decided to swing by the Shawaam Bar.  Surely, he could find something there.

Too, the old detective said to himself: “the son of a bitch knows that prostitution nowadays is as rare in Ad-Darrasa as dollar bills.”  He spat one more time as he cursed Ad-Darrasa’s prostitutes who left for the swanky residential areas of Al- Agooza and Al- Muhandseen where the Westerners and Arabs from the Gulf States rent furnished apartments.

As the wind blew, he flipped up the collar of his rough coat, which touched his ears.  He searched in his pocket for the opium clove.  And when he felt the rustling of its cellophane wrapper between his fingers, he resumed walking.

3-The Old Detective Gives Company to the Boy’s Mother

When the old detective came close to where the woman was sitting on the grass, he whispered to her, with a happiness of a person who found a valuable thing: “good evening.”  She cautiously smiled to him in return.  The sun was retreating into the horizon, leaving behind it a fading light that turned beings into ghosts as it announced the beginning of the nightfall.

The woman’s heartbeats screamed through her veins out of fear…the same fear that her voice betrayed as she greeted the detective back.  The old detective slowly rolled his cigarette, after he had chopped the opium clove with his teeth into little pieces and mixed them with the cigarette’s tobacco.  He lit up the cigarette, while observing the fire eating up the matchstick, which he held between his fingers, until the fire died.  He then threw away the matchstick.  He drew long puffs from the cigarette.  After he filled up his throat and chest with the smoke, he exhaled it through his nose as he handed the cigarette to the woman, while bellowing: “good evening!”

The woman became more scared as she drew small puffs from the laced cigarette with her thin lips.  She whispered to herself: “do his likes ever bring good?” The smoke choked her; she widely opened her eyes.  Her irises drew closer to one another—more than they have already been.  Her big nose seemed like a wall that separated them.  The detective, too, whispered to himself: “had not she been cross-eyed and pale, I would have slated her into the prostitute’s spot!  I wonder why this bitch would not put on some weight; her scrawniness does not make her fit the prostitute profile.  That son of a bitch who is sitting at his desk at the police station would not buy that she is a prostitute.  She seems neither able to help a man in need of a quick release nor quench the thirst of his sexual desires.  Fine…I think I will have to slate her into the beggar’s spot!”

As for the woman, she busied herself with chasing a yellow piece of paper that the wind blew away on the thinning grass.  She retrieved it and rolled it into a new paper cone, which she added to her other paper cones.  She thought again, while she whispered to herself: “I wish I had this detective for a husband…he would bring me his salary in the beginning of every month…I would bring him nine children…among them would be the merchant, the plumber, and the marksman.  I would be his homemaker…I would chat with the neighbors every morning…cook at noon and sleep on clean bed at night.” She also said to herself: “I know why this son of a bitch is coming to me now.  This time, I will show him who I am.”

As for the old detective, he started to mumble between his teeth and complain to her, while he retrieved his half-gone cigarette from her.  He said: “life has turned upside down these days…prices are skyrocketing, and that jackass who is sitting at his desk at the police station thinks that I can perform miracles.  He wants me to pluck the star he wants to wear on his shoulder from the sky! Does this maniac ever think that I can arrest any of the beggars around Al-Hussein’s Mosque?  I cannot do that so long as they pay their dues regularly.  I am always at my word, my dear, and I just cannot do that.  He stopped talking as he drew the last puff from the cigarette.  He stared at her in hopes to discern what was going on in her mind.  However, her crossed eyes that have always looked in the same direction served as a thick wall that stood between him and what was going on inside of her.  He became angry and started to scratch his nose.

Finally and in a tone of a seasoned trader, the woman whispered to the detective and said: “listen, you might be able to get what you want.”  However, the crying of her child interrupted her.  He hated the taste of the soft mud that he had put in his mouth, and when he tried to spit it out, it mixed with his saliva.  His mother leaned on her back from laughing and gave him a couple of lupine seeds, while saying to him: “what a naughty child!”  At that moment, the detective reached into his pocket, drew out a piece of candy, and threw it to the child to pacify himself.  She resumed saying, as the tears were coming out of her eyes because of her excessive laughter: “this is a good omen.”  To which he responded: “I hope so.”

The detective continued as he wore a fake smile on his face and said: “if you come this time, I will bring you dinner myself…you will be all right this time…you will be in jail only for one night after which you will be discharged on lack of sufficient evidence…I will pay you like last time…but this time I will bring you dinner…and he threw half a pound in her lap.

However, she had kicked the matter around in her mind.  This time, he would not be able to trick her.  She would not accept less than a beaded red head kerchief and a full meat-filled loaf from the musmut and half a pound bill in her hand.  The math came out to one and three quarters of a pound. She would not accept a nickel less even if he had to take her by force.  That was what she said to herself.  But the following is what she said to him: “listen detective, last time you did me no justice…you were unfair to me…I cannot put up with this anymore…life is becoming more costly for everyone…this time, I cannot take less than one and three quarters of a pound…this is fair…last time, sleeping on the jail cell’s bare floor almost broke my back.”

The detective coughed and growled.  He crossed his legs as he looked at the lupine seeds, the woman, the boy, and the dog and he wished that he was able to build a huge fire into which he would throw them all and the officer on top of them.  He frowned as he shot a couple of piercing looks at the woman and said: “you have become cunning, Um Muhammad…I swear to God…you have become cunning …greed has filled up your heart…I told you that I will bring you dinner…I swear to God…I will bring you dinner.”  Silently, she looked at the ground, while she wiped her nose with the tip of her scarf, and said: “no deal, detective.”

The boy started laughing as he was mounting the dog and pulling its tail.  He called to his mother to look at what he was doing.  The detective stood up, put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a pound bill, tucked it tightly into the woman’s hand, and said: “tomorrow night, we will meet.”  The woman looked at the bill in her hand, and when she made sure that it was a pound bill, she whispered with a smile and said to the detective: “do not forget to bring the meat-filled loaf of bread from the musmut.



Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Believing her life has plateaued, Veronika, a twenty-four year old, decides to commit suicide.  As the sleeping pills were slow in taking effect, she decides to thumb through a magazine. She comes across an article that questions where Slovenia, her homeland, is.  Offended, she spends the last few minutes, before she blacks out, writing a letter to the editor.  She wakes up strapped into a bed in a mental hospital’s intensive care unit, where she spends a week between life and death.  She then is moved into the “ward” to be informed by Dr. Igor that although her attempt on her life did not immediately kill her, it caused her heart an irreversible damage that will kill her in less than a week.

In Villete, mental hospital, Veronika dives deeply into herself.  She is initially sad that her life did not end immediately.  She continues to contrive ways to end it before its progressively approaching expiration date arrives.  She fails.  During her short stay at Villete, Veronika meets different inmates.   Some desire to leave the hospital and some find it a far better place than the life outside its walls.  She meets Mari, a used-to-be successful lawyer, who became sick of her profession and wanted to help the destitute in El Salvador.  She becomes friends with Zedka, a mother, whose illusion about her first love caused her a severe depression that landed her Villete. She plays the piano for Eduard the schizophrenic whose seclusion from his surroundings liberates her.  Despite her all attempts, she falls in love with him.

Dr. Igor uses reverse psychology with Veronika to reverse her desire to kill herself. He not only lies to her about the healthy condition of her heart, but he also gives her medication that stimulates fake heart attack symptoms.  Within a few days, Veronika trades her desire to die with a strong desire to suck the marrow out of life before she dies.  She finally figures out that the reason of her empty life is that she gave up her dream of becoming a pianist.  Her life plateaued for lack of drive.  She led a life she did not desire.  Her mom desired it for her.  Now that she plays the piano for Eduard, her life, although daily numbered, is full.  She is able to love, as she is able to live. 

Veronica’s love for Eduard is not possessive.  She initially loves him for discovering herself.  His unawareness of his surrounding, including her, does not trouble her at all.  Through it, she pushes the boundaries to experience new horizons in which she fulfills her desires and fantasies away from shame and fear. Maybe being crazy is all she needs to become herself.  He, however, is not just aware of her.  He is falling in love with her.  His love for her causes him to break years of silence and despair. As she discovers that her love is requited, her desire to live intensifies, and so does Eduard’s desire to leave the hospital with her. They run away.     

Drawing on a personal experience, Coelho not only paints the scenes inside the mental hospital skillfully, but he also walks us through the thoughts, feelings and emotions of its inmates. He compares and contrasts the life in Villete with the life outside it. He questions norms and normalcy, advocates for individualism and is never restrained from making the case against God.  Coelho views lunacy and craziness as a mathematical outcome.  Since the majority sets or tries to adhere to the expectations, which society deems normal, the minority is inherently either crazy or lunatic.  Despite their sincere tries to fight for their individuality or to stifle it to fit in the “normal society,” the individuals of the lunatic minority either land a mental hospital or end up killing themselves.  Coelho still drums up the notion that giving up what one wants to do is no different, let alone an effective means, from giving up one’s life. 

The Tree Climber (Ya Talee’ Es-Shagara) By Tawfiq Al-Hakim

In a play that conflates time, place and action, Tawfiq Al-Hakim experiments with the absurd theater.  In less-than a70-page play that includes a handful of characters, Al-Hakim holds the reader/viewer’s attention to what is happening in almost a total absence of logical thinking.  However, thinking does not stay dormant for long.   As it surfaces, it initially plays a second fiddle to following the events of the play.  Eventually, thinking occupies its frontal lobe seat.  As thinking attempts to make sense of utter nonsense, it only succeeds to produce assumptions.

The play seems to revolve around a simple plot.  A 60-year old wife, who is obsessed with the “baby girl” whom she miscarried during her first marriage almost 40 years before, disappears.  Her 65-year old husband, who is obsessed with the only tree in his small house’s yard and the green lizard that lives under it, becomes a suspect of killing her.  The wife reappears.  The husband is exonerated.  Curious to know where his wife was for three days, the husband bombards his wife with questions.  She answers none of them.  She responds with “no” to every question even when “no” does not logically apply.  The husband becomes frustrated.  He chokes his wife.  She dies.

The husband works as a train inspector.  He retires after spending almost forty years in this line of business.  During the course of his career, he meets people from different walks of life.  The reader/viewer is introduced only to two varieties of the people he meets: a dervish and school pupils.  As time and place maintain fluid properties, different characters in the play interact with one another across periods and locations.  As much as such interactions enrich the dialog and accelerate the plot’s ascendance, they stimulate a sense of dizziness as the viewer/reader’s brain whirls trying to track the “untrackable.”

Although “absurd,” Al-Hakim’s Tree Climber is rife with symbols.  Actually, the play’s elevated absurdity could only be matched by its rich symbolism.  The combination of both characteristics causes The tree Climber to transcend Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  The absurdity of the former is an everlasting fuel for mental exercise, whereas the latter’s is promoted by the complacency of a hypnotized audience.