Tag Archives: Clare Cavanagh

Tayeb Salih, Conrad, and the Others

The new Harper’s (July 2009) has a great review by Robyn Creswell of the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North (موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال), which, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, has recently been republished by New York Review Books (the first English-language edition appeared with Heinemann in 1969).

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The book’s unnamed narrator, a Sudanese man who has spent time in England, reconstructs the life of another anglicized Sudanese, Mustafa Sa’eed, whom he meets shortly before the latter’s suicide. The narrator’s fascination with his semblable/frère resonates, as Creswell suggests, with Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz; and evidently the novel has been held up by postcolonial critics as a kind of Heart of Darkness in reverse, “a classic example of ‘the empire writing back’.” Creswell criticizes the reductionism implicit in that reading, however, and situates the terms of the relationship between the two books within a larger argument about realism and the novel:

The central drama of Salih’s novella is not Mustafa Sa’eed’s journey to the heart of Europe but the confrontation between Sa’eed and the narrator, who, like Marlow, feels himself ‘captured by the incredible,’ faced with a character too big for the otherwise realistic fiction he inhabits. It is Salih’s understanding of this dilemma, which is ethical and literary rather than straightforwardly political, that makes his reading of Conrad distinctive.

While reading Creswell’s review (and I am so intrigued by it that my reading of Salih’s book is not far off either), I found myself recalling my own encounter with Heart of Darkness many years ago, and with V.S. Naipaul’s 1974 essay on it, which Creswell discusses. While Creswell is eager to shed a more complex, literary and ethical light on Salih, and by extension on Conrad, than has been done thus far by postcolonial critics, there is another critique of the postcolonial reception of Conrad that I think bears dwelling on. I had always wondered why postcolonial critics disregarded Conrad’s own history as a colonial subject in an area of the world marked by successive waves of colonization and subjugation of one ethnic group by another (not just of the Poles by the Russians, but of the Ukrainians and Lithuanians by the Poles, and the Jews by everyone), and of empire (which in that part of the world in the nineteenth century had three faces: Russian, Prussian, and Austrian).

Very little has been written about this aspect of Conrad, but it’s crucial, of course, to his relation to Africa and to European imperialism. The translator and scholar Clare Cavanagh has published what I think is the only article so far that addresses this negligent reception (“Postcolonial Poland,” Common Knowledge 10:1 [2004], 82-92). There she not only critiques the postcolonial blindspot to the so-called second world, but situates Conrad into a Polish context that includes Czesław Miłosz, Aleksander Wat, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska. “The most astute and gifted of Poland’s postwar artists,” Cavanagh writes, “have shared Conrad’s wariness, not simply toward one empire or another, but to the very idea of empire that has informed the West from the time, under Rome, that it conceived itself as a global civilization.”

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More aptly, Cavanagh discusses Conrad in relation to Ryszard Kapuściński, whose writing of Africa (no less than that of Iran) invokes all sorts of questions about realism and fiction and empire and ethics and the Other:

Kapuściński’s writing not only expresses much of the postcolonial attitude of Polish poetry and fiction but also clarifies the possibilities for an expanded critique of colonialism than current theory offers. He demonstrates, in other words, a way of incorporating the Second World into our present theoretical frame. In a recent review of Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun, Neal Ascherson, the historian, calls attention to the peculiar tradition to which Kapuściński belongs. It is a tradition, including Conrad, that consists of travel writers from European nations invaded, conquered, culturally dominated, and often settled by the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or German empires. These writers knew all too well what it meant to be at the wrong end of colonialism—and during sojourns in Africa, Asia, or Polynesia, they continually recognized aspects of their own experience.

Of course, central and eastern Europe is just as affected by Western cultural hegemony as it has been by Russian and Soviet imperialism, which is no doubt an important reason why its experience has been ignored by Western postcolonial theorists, even Conrad scholars, and is often received along the most conventional of patterns. Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska themselves are often only legible for Western readers as witnesses of tragedy, as the “victims of history,” as one American poet put it not long ago. Just as the poetic and ethical dimensions of Salih’s or Conrad’s work have been overlooked by postcolonial scholars, so too are the Polish poets often instrumentalized for ideological reasons that ultimately impoverish our understanding of them.

But Cavanagh’s article has another objective, which is to link the study of Polish literature to discourses with which literary studies and literary theory have been saturated for decades, but in which Slavic Studies as a discipline has, until recently, been largely uninvolved. And maybe that encounter between fields will be achieved eventually. It is an objective that is a necessary one for Polish Studies, and ideally will also facilitate the reception of Polish literature more generally outside the typical post-Enlightenment/Cold War binarism of West vs. East (Europe) and re-situate it in terms of a broader, global dynamic. The example of Conrad, from both Cavanagh’s and Creswell’s respective perspectives, demonstrates that it actually makes sense to read Salih’s Season of Migration to the North not only in relation to Conrad or Naipaul or other authors like Jamaica Kincaid (who also writes along a South-North meridian), but to Aleksander Wat’s My Century (another New York Review Books reprint, incidentally), for example, or Gombrowicz’s Cosmos or Diaries or Transatlantyk (North-South and East-West) (anything by Gombrowicz, really) .

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New Szymborska poem in Granta Magazine online

There is a poem from Wisława Szymborska’s new book, Tutaj (Here), published in January by Wydawnictwo Znak, on Granta‘s online site. It’s the second installment of the magazine’s new series of contemporary poetry (the first installment, last month, presented two lovely poems by Jack Gilbert). Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, “Teenager” is, I believe, the first new poem of Szymborska’s to appear in English in several years. Although Tutaj has gotten lukewarm reviews in Poland, this poem has all the reflective economy, torsion, and wit we’ve come to expect and love in the best of Szymborska’s poetry.

Judging from their website, it looks as if the most recent issue of NOR (New Ohio Review) has a special feature on Szymborska: http://www.ohiou.edu/nor/. Mostly this comprises short essays about her work, but I understand that some newly translated poems are included in the issue as well.

Ewa Lipska in the 21st Century

The latest issue (#15) of the San Francisco-based translation journal Two Lines came in the mail yesterday, and what I’ve read so far is tremendous: two really amazing poems by French poet Emmanuel Moses, translated by Marilyn Hacker; works by Latvian poet Pēters Brūveris, translated by Inara Cedrins (two poems that remind me somehow of that other great Baltic poet Johannes Bobrowski) and Lithuanian novelist Ričardas Gavelis, translated by Elizabeth Novickas (an excerpt from Vilnius Poker, which Open Letter has just published); a number of Old English rune poems translated by John Estes (I have to admit I was more interested in discerning a connection with the Old English, which I know almost nothing about, than reading the translations…); and three lovely poems by Ewa Lipska, translated by Margret Grebowicz. There’s a lot more that I haven’t gotten to, all of it enticing. The issue is subtitled “Strange Harbors” and is quite thoughtfully edited. You can find more information about it (and past issues of Two Lines) at the Center for the Art of Translation website.


It’s nice to see work by Lipska in English again. She has been one of the stalwarts of Polish poetry since her debut in the early 1960s, and is associated with the New Wave poets— Barańczak, Zagajewski, Kornhauser (in the same way that Barbara Guest is associated with Ashbery, O’Hara, and Schuyler, I would add)—both because they are of the same generation and on account of the linguistic skepticism that characterized all of their work in the 1970s. Lipska, however, has continued to pursue this poetic, while the others haven’t really, except maybe Kornhauser. And if her contemporary Zagajewski can be considered an inheritor of Herbert, she might be considered an heir-apparent to Różewicz.

The now defunct Forest Books brought out a book of Lipska’s poetry in 1991, Poet? Criminal? Madman?, translated by British translators Barbara Plebanek and Tony Howard, which is out of print. I’ve just learned of another Plebanek-Howard collaboration, Arc Publications’ Pet Shops and Other Poems, which is not distributed in the U.S. and was evidently not very well publicized anywhere. She has also appeared in several anthologies over the years: Barańczak’s and Cavanagh’s 1991 Spoiling Cannibals’ Fun, Bassnett’s and Kuhiwczak’s Ariadne’s Thread, Regina Gról’s 1996 Ambers Aglow. But probably because of the galvanization of a canon of Polish poets that happened more or less when Szymborska got the Nobel Prize in 1996, Lipska has fallen out of view—the American view, at least.

(Based on my own memory of the time, I’d say that prior to 1996—or let’s say 1995, when View With a Grain of Sand came out—Szymborska was only marginally better known in the U.S. than Poland’s other major woman poets: Lipska, Julia Hartwig, Urszula Kozioł; and was certainly no better known than Różewicz, with whom she shared Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire as her first translators. Also, in the 1980s, largely due to Miłosz’s very active promotion of her and a single hardbound volume with Harcourt Brace, Anna Świr was far better known than Szymborska, though who reads her now?)

Anyway, back to Lipska. We’re about to see a lot of her again in a very short while: Northwestern University Press has a volume slated for their fall catalogue: THE NEW CENTURY, which comprises poems from at least six of her recent books, with the lion’s share coming from 1999 (1999) and Newton’s Orange (2007). The volume will also be furnished with forewords by Ewa Lipska herself, Szymborska, and both of the translators: Robin Davidson (who is a professor in the English Department at University of Houston Downtown) and Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska (a younger Polish poet based in Kraków). Lipska’s translator for the poems in Two Lines, Margaret Grebowicz (who is a professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Goucher College), also has a complete manuscript that is looking for a publisher. I haven’t seen it, but judging from the three lovely poems in the magazine, I hope it does find one soon. In any case, with Knopf publishing books by Julia Hartwig and Janusz Szuber (forthcoming in May—I’ll be posting something on this shortly) and this book by Ewa Lipska coming out with Northwestern, it seems there might be a new wave of interest in Polish poetry afoot.

ewa_lipska_obraz_027Ewa Lipska (photo credit: http://www.zgapa.pl)

2008 Best Translated Book Award

Open Letter Books/Three Percent held the ceremony for its first Best Translated Book Award (for 2008) at Melville House last night. The winners were (for fiction) Attila Bartis’s book TRANQUILITY, translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein for Archipelago Books, and (for poetry) Takashi Hiraide’s book FOR THE FIGHTING SPIRIT OF THE WALNUT, translated from Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu for New Directions. As Open Letter publisher Chad Post said in his introduction to the event, the idea for the award came out of his and others’ disappointment that translations were consistently left unmentioned in year-end reports about published books. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Congratulations, too, to the translators, authors, and publishers of the two Polish titles shortlisted for the poetry award: Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki’s PEREGRINARY, translated by Bill Johnston and published by Zephyr Press, and Adam Zagajewski’s ETERNAL ENEMIES, translated by Clare Cavanagh for FSG.


More information on the award and the other long- and short-listed titles here: 3% BTB 2008.