Javier Moreno - A whole book of poems or an entire novel could be written out of every three sentences from this book, a sequence of sharp, strictly poetic and intelligent concatenations, neither pretentious nor forced. Kubrick, Malkovich, Einstein and everything else

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Javier Moreno, Alma, Trans. by Peter Kahn, Quantum Prose, 2018.

This is not a book. As the title suggests, this is a soul: an Alma. But a soul, make no mistake about it, is not something from another world. It is a conglomeration of images and words, reproductive data made available to anyone for the satisfaction of the democratic and mephistophelian instinct (who has never desired the soul of another?). This novel speaks to what we are--or are not--prepared to share. Maybe we don't know yet what intimacy is, maybe it is the negative of our own image. It is also possible that the only intimacy left to us is that of words.

"Kubrick, Malkovich, Einstein and everything else. A piece of quantum prose."--Don DeLillo

"The only possible points of comparison for Javier Moreno's ALMA, a book made of sentences, dealing with the materiality of the living, and obsessed with sorting, would be those texts that are most luminous and uncanny. ALMA, unlike anything else I have read, brings together certain amazing qualities of Craig Dworkin's Legion (which consists entirely of statements from a psychiatric diagnostic instrument), of the more radical of David Markson's novels, and of the quietly fevered voices from the writing of Roberto Bolaño. Is it a soul? A novel? Interesting questions--but in any case, ALMA is a configuration of words that demands to be sorted through, one that is compellingly unhinged, open and shut."--Nick Montfort

"A whole book of poems or an entire novel could be written out of every three sentences from this book, a sequence of sharp, strictly poetic and intelligent concatenations, neither pretentious nor forced."--Agustín Fernández Mallo

"Alma is an exploration, from a space of creation, of the limits imposed on the concept of identity by the new conditions of identity (and the experience of such identity), inaugurated by the turn of the century."--Jara Calles

Javier Moreno is a Spanish writer, poet, mathematician and literary critic. He is the author of the novels Buscando Batería, La Hermogeníada, Click (Recipient of the FNAC New Talent Award 2008), ALMA (Finalist Premio Mandarache 2014), 2020, and Acontecimiento. He also wrote the collection of short stories Atractores Extraños and the books of poems Cortes Publicitarios (Miguel Hernández Award, 2008), Acabado en diamante (International Prize La Garúa, 2009) and Cadenas de Búsqueda. Moreno writes criticism for the literary journals Revista de Letras and Revista Buensalvaje.


Blume Lempel is a fearless storyteller whose imagination skilfully moves between the realistic and the fantastic, the lyrical and the philosophical. Her subjects like her settings - Paris, Poland, Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, California - range widely

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Blume Lempel, Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, Trans. by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press, 2016. 

Several stories can be read on-line: "The Little Red Umbrella" in Brooklyn Rail, "Neighbors over the Fence," in Pakn Treger, "Pastorale," in K1N, and "The Debt," in In Geveb."

Blume Lempel is a fearless storyteller whose imagination skilfully moves between the realistic and the fantastic, the lyrical and the philosophical. Her subjects like her settings - Paris, Poland, Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, California - range widely. A Holocaust survivor speaks to the shadows in her garden; a pious old woman imagines romance; a New York subway commuter forges a bond with a homeless woman; a middle-aged woman opens her heart on a blind date; an argumentative couple gets lost in a blizzard; and in the title story, a mother is drawn into an incestuous relationship with her blind son. Readers of these superbly translated stories by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub are in for a stunning literary journey.

 "A splendid surprise and a significant revivication of a brilliantly robust Yiddish American writer." - Cynthia Ozick

“I am a housewife, a wife, a mother, a grandmother—and a Yiddish writer. I write my stories in Yiddish.  [. . . ] Because I speak Yiddish, think in Yiddish. My father and mother, my sisters and brothers, my murdered people seek revenge in Yiddish.” (215)
There was a time when book-length translations from Yiddish were not such a rarity. Commercial publishers and smaller independent presses once saw a market for the likes of Sholem Asch, Chaim Grade, or Israel Joshua Singer. These days, however, translations from Yiddish seem to be entirely the preserve of a dwindling handful of university presses. In this context, the release of Blume Lempel’s Oedipus in Brooklyn, co-published by independent presses Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press, comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. Doubly welcome is the fact that Lempel has arrived into English at a time of increased appetite and enthusiasm for rediscovering the works of neglected female writers.
Blume Lempel (1907-1999) was one of Yiddish literature’s genuinely unique voices and this volume, comprising a selection of twenty-two stories taken from Lempel’s collections, a rege fun emes (A moment of Truth) 1981, and balade fun a kholem (Ballad of a Dream) 1986, gives the reader a taste of her range and thematic preoccupations. Lempel was a controversial writer, not just for the fact that she dealt with taboo topics such as incest, abortion, madness, suicide, etc. but for the unsettling candor and clarity with which she shared her inner world. Lempel’s essay “The Fate of the Yiddish Writer” rounds out the collection, serving as a fitting coda. In it she defines her writing as, “the putting down on paper of that which will not leave me in peace” (217).
Indeed it is this same inability to find peace that unites Lempel’s protagonists, a disparate collection of bag-ladies, beggars, refugees and retirees. Each is haunted by the traumas of the past, whether it be memories of war and genocide in the old country, or the smaller tragedies of modern life in France or America.
Lempel’s prose is muscular, unflinching, and uncompromising, capable of striking shifts in tone . . .
Before returning to the big city to continue his instruction in the ways of the world, Yosip presented her with a watch [. . . ] Every time she set the watch ahead, the hands turned backwards of their own accord. When she reached midnight, Sorke was standing before an open pit. Naked, ashamed, more dead than alive, she was waiting for someone, she knew not whom. A direct descendant of primeval man ripped the watch off her wrist. Dressed in a brown uniform and white gloves, he whistled a melody that had once moved her to tears. (157)
This tendency to lurch from the lyrical to the grotesque, often with dizzying unpredictability, is one of the qualities that give these stories their power.
The translators Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub are both authors in their own right (Taub is a poet, while Cassedy is an accomplished prose writer) and together they produce a translation which is sharp, vivid, and polished. Their translation is particularly strong in those moments when Lempel dwells on images of horror and brutality:
Men hot dertseylt, az nokh als kind hot ir eygener foter ir di oygn oysgestokhn. In tsayt fun hunger hobn eltern farkriplt zeyere eygene kinder, zeyer vayber, un oft mol zikh aleyn opgeshnitn an oyer, a fus, opgehakt a hant, kedey tsu dervekn barmhartsikeyt fun di velkhe hobn zikh gekont farginen optsushporn a shtikl broyt dos khayes tsu derhaltn.
It was said that her own father had put out her eyes when she was a child. In the years of famine, parents did cripple their children, their wives, even themselves, chopping off an ear, a foot, or a hand in order to stay alive by arousing the sympathy of those with a crust of bread to spare. (158)
Even those stories that do not touch on violent events directly are tinged with a faint patina of unarticulated suffering. When dealing with certain themes, however—changing sexual mores, for example, or the bitter culture-shock of old-age—Lempel throws in the occasional pinch of irony, a dash of self-deprecation.
As sacrilegious as it may be to say, the book could have benefited from being shorter—not that any of its contents should have been excluded, but there is a certain “homeopathic” quality to Lempel’s prose insofar as it is more potent in small doses. The reader is therefore advised to consume these stories in moderation: binge-readers run the risk of becoming numb to Lempel’s tonal shock-tactics, to the detriment of some very strong stories in the latter half of the collection.
Stylistically, Lempel is one of a kind, but the pantheon of forgotten female Yiddish writers is still densely packed with contenders, waiting for their chance to be rediscovered. If the current volume finds the readership it deserves, then it is not unrealistic to expect more of Lempel’s stories to appear in English at some point. And, with a little luck, perhaps some day readers will come looking for the next Blume Lempel. - Daniel Kennedy

Blume Lempel (1907-1999) was born in Khorostkiv (now Ukraine). She immigrated to Paris in 1929 and fled to New York on the eve of World War II. She wrote in Yiddish into the 1990s. Her prize-winning fiction is remarkable for its psychological acuity, its unflinching examination of erotic themes and gender relations, and its technical virtuosity. Mirroring the dislocation of mostly women protagonists, her stories move between present and past, Old World and New, dream and reality. This book is the first English language collection and translation of Lempel's stories and is based on a manuscript that won the 2012 National Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize

Leopoldo Panero - Not since Lautreamont has the Hispanic world delivered such a haunted portrait of hell, in such refined, articulate style. His work is striking in its originality, and Panero is the only contemporary poet who reaches deep into the human experience and pulls out the entrails regarding the true state of the human condition

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Leopoldo María Panero, Like an Eye in the Hand of a Beggar, Bilingual Edition, Trans. by Arturo Mantecón. Intro. by Túa Blesa, Editions Michel Eyquem, 2013.

"I am in awe of Leopoldo María Panero. Not since Isadore Ducasse has the Hispanic world delivered such a haunted portrait of hell, in such refined, articulate style. Panero is now in my gallery of decipherers of the unknown. He is proof that real poets might come from a specific place but ultimately have no country; they belong to language itself and Panero's language is sheer revelation."—Ilan Stavans

"If Panero's preoccupations—or his very life—remind one of any poet, it is Antonin Artaud. The same radical posture taken toward poetry and life, the same tremendous toll the world has levied on them. Hence the violence of the poems, hence the dark glow of their victory.—Alberto Blanco

"If there is one poet who has forged a new world with their vision and language, that poet would have to be Leopoldo María Panero. His work is striking in its originality, and Panero is the only living poet who reaches deep into the human experience and pulls out the entrails regarding the true state of the human condition. Arturo Mantecón's translation of Panero's poetry is the best possible introduction for the English reader to this incredible body of work. Bravo!"—Alejandro Murguía

“…almost all [critics] agree that he is the greatest living poet in Spanish, and the most significant one since García Lorca and Aleixandre,” Arturo Mantecón writes in his introduction to his selected translations of Leopoldo María Panero Like an Eye in the Hand of a Beggar (17). A big claim, but I cannot disagree that the poetry is tremendous. Since the collection was published in 2013, Panero has died at the age of 65, and it seems more critical than ever for his work to reach the ample public it deserves through this volume, only the second collection to appear in English, championed by Mantecón. Any reader interested in poetry, and I would go so far as to say, any person concerned with the human condition, must read Panero.
For scholars of translation, however, the true delight of this collection is Mantecón’s mastery as a translator. With maturity, humility, and courage, Mantecón has rendered Panero’s poetry in an English that reverberates with equal vitality. Perhaps Mantecón felt liberated by Panero’s own theory as a practitioner himself that “translation should ‘…effectively elaborate upon—or surpass—the original and not transfer it [from one language to another]’” (18). By knowing when to depart from Panero’s poems, Mantecón has matched them in his translations. More than once, as I read to review, penciling notes in my copy, I struggled to approximate in letters the sound of my breath being whooshed away. There isn’t an adequate onomatopoeia for this sound in English, but I wrote my attempts above several of Mantecón’s translations.
Among the wonderful essays that accompany the poems, the scholar Túa Blesa asserts, “It is necessary to give Leopoldo María Panero credit for two great constructs: his life and his work” (21). Brilliant, schizophrenic, rebellious from an early age against the bourgeois mores of his family and the persistent fascism of his country, the prolific Panero is known affectionately as nuestro poeta maldito (our cursed poet) in Spain. Between Mantecón, Blesa, and editor Solomon Rino’s orientations to Panero’s poetry, there is a tension about where the life and work meet, a need to situate Panero among the great tradition of poète maudit, and a desire to protect his work from the dismissal of madness, in particular for a poet who had been both a victim of psychiatric treatment and a voluntary resident of a psychiatric hospital for the last decade or so of his life. It is a tension reflected in Panero’s body of work; as Rino recognizes, the death of the poet within his work is a way of murdering “stale, known linguistic forms,” destruction through a descent into madness that ultimately makes way for the new (30).
Mantecón’s mastery lies not only in his ability to, in his words, “capture the lucid madness of the poet,” but in his careful crafting through his selections from across the extraordinary body of work—Blesa’s complete bibliography cites more than 40 books of poetry alone—of a narrative arc that follows this descent into madness and ultimately poses an answer to the question of Panero’s sanity (18). The book begins with a brief “Dedication” that sets the scene: “I, who prostituted everything/would even whore out my own death/and make of my cadaver/the last poem” (33). From there, the book moves swiftly on to “The Madman” (“El loco”), where Panero’s prophetic ‘I’ echoes Lorca in Spanish and Ginsberg in English. Here, Mantecón allows himself to depart from Panero’s lineation, as he does in many of his translations, thereby replicating Panero’s rhythm with highly attuned sonic play and enhancing the formal assertions of the poem in English:
I have lived in the blanks of life
its equivocations, its oblivions, its incessant oafishness
and I remember its brutal mystery
and its tentacle caressing my belly and my buttocks
and my feet frenetic for flight.
I have lived its temptation, and I have lived the sin
of which no one will ever absolve us. (35)
He vivido los blancos de la vida,
sus equivocaciones, sus olvidos, su
torpeza incesante y recuerdo su
misterio brutal, y el tentáculo
suyo acariciarme el vientre y las nalgas y los pies
frenéticos de huida.
He vivido su tentación, y he vivido el pecado
del que nadie cabe nunca nos absuelva. (34)
Due to the relineation, without cutting anything, the resulting English poem appears shorter and wider than the Spanish. (Even in the small section I have quoted, the Spanish has two more lines.) By bringing up “torpeza incesante,” which he wonderfully translates as “incessant oafishness” to augment the hissing s-consonance of the line, Mantecón creates a longer line that forms a visual “blank” right where the poet has indicated. Nor does he shy away from opportunities for alliteration, one of the best qualities English has to offer as a language of translation, in “my belly and my buttocks” and “my feet frenetic for flight.”
As Panero deals with the death of the poem and the periphery between madness and sanity, his poetics is one of both lack and decadence. This is expressed nowhere better than in “The Four-Fold Form of Nothingness,” another example of where significant relineation was required to enhance the form of the English. In addition to the relineation, which in this case renders the English significantly longer, Mantecón has added two periods to Panero’s original two, breaking the poem up to create a ‘four-fold form.’ The first section reads:
I have learned to see the mystery of verse
which is the mystery of that which names itself
the lure consisting of Nothingness
held out in promise to the Fish of Time
whose toothless mouth
reveals the origin of the poem
in the Nothingness that floats before the poem
and which is distinct from the Nothingness
of which the poem sings
and distinct from the Nothingness
in which the poem expires. (137)
Panero identifies three forms of Nothingness: the nothingness from which the poem arises, the nothingness of which the poem consists, and the nothingness in which it ends. Here, nothingness “is not a vacuum/but rather an amplitude of words” (137). Both presence and absence are heightened by the translation: what Mantecón renders as “vacuum” is vacío in the Spanish, often translated with the vague “void.” As in Panero’s poem, the word “Nothingness” (nada) is repeated throughout, often on the end of the line, but Mantecón capitalizes it, making it more of a presence.
By the end of the poem, Panero discovers the fourth form of Nothingness:
A witness, here, is its cadaver
where the poem gasps and dies
testifying that Nothing has been written
nor has it ever been written
and this is the four-fold form of Nothingness. (139)
Avoiding the easy cognate “quadruple” for the title’s cuádruple and triple for triple, Mantecón creates the rhythmic, alliterative “four-fold form” that echoes the undulations of ‘noth-ing-ness.’ By replicating the subject of Panero’s poem in the formal structure of his translation, Mantecón reinforces the function of this poem as a poetics through which the subsequent poems in his selection can be understood.
The stunning poem “This is Not About Rancor but About Hate,” is born of Panero’s own translation, making Mantecón’s translation a third voice in the conversation. The title in the Spanish, “No se trata de rencor sino de odio,” of which the English is a literal translation, is a creative translation of the epigraph from Stephane Mallarmé, “Ils convoitent la haine, au lieu de la rancune,” literally, ‘They covet hatred, rather than rancor.” As the poem’s many contradictions make clear, those who attempt to locate truth in verse will find it slipping away:
There is nothing so pure as hate
which this fountain pours forth like golden bile
and where there are thousands of flowers
emerging from the cruel tanglevine of Nothingness
thousands of quaking lilies
like a thousand mendacities.
I am someone who tells lies (199)
Mantecón brilliantly converts enredadera to the poetic “tanglevine,” adding the sense of entrapment which will later be extended to metaphors of the hunt. Because of the different syntax of Spanish, line order must often be inverted in English translation, but Mantecón accomplishes this without losing any of the gorgeous sonic play on the line endings in the Spanish—“cruel de la nada, miles/de temblorosas lilas/como mil mentiras” that is echoed in the English by “bile/lilies/mendacities/lies.” Writing poetry is an ultimately fruitless hunt for meaning; verses fix nothing in time, as the staggering ending reveals:
Because what I am
is known only by the verse
that is going to die on your lips
like the whinnying bellow
that puts an end to the hunt. (199)
Mantecón’s astutely ordered selection comes full circle in the last poem, “Correction of Yeats,” another poem in conversation, in this case with Yeats’s “A Prayer for Old Age”:
May God protect me
with more than his name
may God protect me
from being an old man
adulated by all and called out to by all
by the emptiness of his name.
Oh, what am I? Who am I
if I can do nothing more
than appear to be
—because of my love
of singing the entire song—
a complete madman?
[…] I pray that
even if it takes a long time for me to die
and have my name written, at last
on my tombstone
that they will be able to some day say
over that cold corpse
that I was not crazy. (271-3)
Here, the legendary life speaks through the work. The persona—admired, pursued, unknown—has superseded the person. “The emptiness of his name” could refer either to the name of the divine or to Panero himself, rendered an abstraction. While Yeats hopes to be remembered as “foolish, passionate,” Panero longs in his death for his work to be taken on its own merit. His is the prophetic voice of the Decadents whose songs of decay, hypocrisy, and moral corruption are called ravings by those who don’t heed their warning.
The evocative title of the book is discovered in the poem “Mutation of Bataille,” a poem that is gorgeous, even as it takes off from the surrealist writer and deals with the filth and violence of human connection, “and I have seen your pain as an act of charity/like someone delicately placing an eye/in the outstretched white hand of a beggar” (37). The title is, of course, not an exact quotation. As in his translations, Mantecón knows where to separate from Panero, making a claim about the poetry within that rings true. This is translation living up to its highest calling as literary criticism. - Lucina Schell

Rosa Enferma / The Sick Rose
Leopoldo María Panero, Rosa Enferma / The Sick Rose,
Bilingual Ed. Trans by Arturo Mantecon, Swan Scythe Press, 2016.

"This is the final collection of Spanish poet Leopoldo Maria Panero (1948-2014): the 'incomplete fish that he carries in his hand', a coda to a body of work that took up where Nietzsche, Baudelaire and Mallarme put down their pens. Panero's experiment is to relentlessly perform the authority of discourse: 'I will say the same thing in another way' his challenge to the philosophers of our time, revealing Panero as the most radical thinker of his generation. The self-consuming paradox of discourse, trapped in all its wild beauty within 'the systemizing blue of the page', is here ably translated by Arturo Mantecon." Andrew Faraday Giles Arturo Mantecon is a poet who has translated the work of Leopoldo Maria Panero in two previous volumes: My Naked Brain (Swan Scythe Press) and LIKE AN EYE IN THE HAND OF A BEGGAR (Editions Michel Eyquem, 2013). He is currently translating the work of the Spanish writer Francisco Ferrer Lerin."

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Born to wealth and privilege in Franco's Spain, Panero succumbed to mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction as a young man, and was subjected to electroshock therapy. He voluntarily chose to enter a mental hospital in the Canaary Islands, where has lived for the last 38 years.

José de Piérola - Flowers that grow from light bulbs. Bullets stopped by an iPod. A ship and woman taken apart piece by piece. Encompassing thousands of years, this collection is at once intimate and panoramic. Each story aspires to be an imaginative periscope to see part of our shared human experience from a new angle


José de Piérola, Fabulations, Kernpunkt Press, 2018.


Encompassing thousands of years, Fabulations is composed of minimalist short stories that straddle history and fiction, fact and imagination to tell stories as varied as the early effects of human civilization on our planet or the strange relationship between machines, chess and the human mind. These fabulations, intimate and panoramic, are imaginative periscopes that reveal part of our shared human experience from fresh, new angles.

Flowers that grow from light bulbs. Bullets stopped by an iPod. A ship and woman taken apart piece by piece. FABULATIONS is a collection of minimalist short stories that straddle history and fiction, fact and imagination. Encompassing thousands of years, this collection is at once intimate and panoramic. Each story aspires to be an imaginative periscope to see part of our shared human experience from a new angle.

"De Piérola welcomes his readers into fabulous worlds, from distant places and times to familiar neighborhoods, from strange loops of reality to the stone and dust of our own cities. Each story is rooted in human desire, in real people, and there is an urgency in reading them, a reluctance to put the book down, as you might miss something. And you don’t want to miss anything de Piérola writes.  The spirit of Cortázar, Robert Louis Stevenson, Borges, Poe, welcome you into these fabulous places of the imagination.The stories are beautiful and heartbreaking." - Daniel Chacón

"Fabulations is marvelous and startling: utterly original, gravely essential. Elegantly traversing chronology, geography and narrative structures, what is historically absurd with the protest of imagination, it provokes and disturbs, pierces and resonates, sings through Calvino’s credo that literature is “the search for lightness . . . to the weight of living,” handling terror, irony and humor all at once in the same palm, and so nimbly, that at times all we can be sure of is the measure of time. José de Piérola is a writer of extraordinary power. These stories are deftly rendered with such sensitivity that he arrives, through the fabulist narrative, at a masterful calculus of who through history we have been—and in so doing, ennobles who we can be, and who we are." - Sasha Pimentel
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José de Piérola (Lima, Peru) is a fiction writer translator and literary critic. He worked for more than ten years as a computer consultant before he left his career to complete a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of California, San Diego in 2007. His novels El camino de regreso and Un beso del infierno chronicle the civil struggle in Peru during the 1980s. He has also published the novels Summa Caligramática and Shatranj: el juego de los reyes, and the short story collections Sur y Norte and Máquina del tiempo. He has translated The Art of Fiction by Henry James and L’Etranger by Albert Camus to Spanish, and Quechua Magic-Religious Tales from Lucanamarca by José María Arguedas to English. Fabulations is his first work in English. He teaches fiction writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.

Miguel Ángel Bustos - language is both a tool of subjugation and a device to conjure a strange world that transcends the one we only think we know. And like a postcolonial Rimbaud, he repurposes symbols to develop his own: universal, synesthetic, and above all, musical. Polyvocal, intertextual, and hybrid in form, these books span aphoristic fragments, prose poems, lyrical prose chapters, and linguistically experimental free verse

Miguel Ángel Bustos, Vision of the Children of Evil, Trans. by Lucina Schell, co-im-press, 2018.            

Simultaneously prophetic and blasphemous, Vision of the Children of Evil by Miguel Ángel Bustos presents a mystical rejoinder to the inequities of the Americas, a revision of history through the motif of divine descent, as relevant and revolutionary today as when the poems first debuted in the 1960s. In Bustos's poetry, language is both a tool of subjugation and a device to conjure a strange world that transcends the one we only think we know. And like a postcolonial Rimbaud, he repurposes symbols to develop his own: universal, synesthetic, and above all, musical. Polyvocal, intertextual, and hybrid in form, these books span aphoristic fragments, prose poems, lyrical prose chapters, and linguistically experimental free verse, voicing Spanish colonizers and invented indigenous characters alike. In this bilingual dual edition featuring both Fantastical Fragments (1965) and Vision of the Children of Evil (1967), anglophone readers have their first opportunity to experience Bustos's poetry, as the poet fell victim to a double silencing in Argentina—he was disappeared at the beginning of the 1976 military dictatorship and, subsequently, his work was suppressed and his name absented from the literary record. Lucina Schell's translations are nothing short of extraordinary—urgent, adept, and possessing the necessary temerity to match wits with a poetic voice as strident as Bustos's. A poète maudit whose untimely death was ironically brought on by his leftist politics, Miguel Ángel Bustos reinvents the origin myth of Argentina—and the Americas—laying bare all its promise, all its pain.

This essential voice of a "disappeared" poet from the brutal period of Argentina's Dirty War is electrifying. Miguel Ángel Bustos's poetry shakes me with its aching sense of existential abandonment—just as "a land that trembles like the lung of a boy." His work is populated with demons, vampires, fantastical cabinets, hallucinations, llamas, condors, tigers, a word-womb of prophecy, the Legion of the Children of Evil, and "the rust on the nail that eats at you." His dark visions exhilarate, infect, inflame. Like César Vallejo or Alejandra Pizarnik, he is a poet who eats radiance even as night falls in his poems (to paraphrase him). A poet, journalist, and anthropologist, he diagnoses society's diseases and trumpets the damage they do to the human soul. Writing at a time when Argentina was plunging into horrifying repression in a series of violent coups, Bustos fuses the eerie visions of Baudelaire, Nerval, and Poe with the prophetic tones of Milton and Blake. Bustos's prediction held true: "When I die, the prophet in me will rise like a child without morals or motherland." I'm grateful for Lucina Schell's artful rendering that recreates the visceral yet oneiric impetus and the adroit wordplay of Bustos's poems. The appearance of this translation is an event to celebrate. —Rachel Galvin

Like the tormented Peruvian César Vallejo or the Spanish madman-savant Leopoldo Panero, Argentina's Miguel Ángel Bustos ransacks the unconscious for its darkest revelations of the inexpressible. Like García Lorca forty years before in Spain, Bustos was murdered for his politics in 1976 by his country's military dictatorship. To render his hallucinated language and his dream-nightmare visions in credible English, Lucina Schell reaches for the edges of expression and introduces us to a strangely gifted, wildly imaginative, prematurely silenced twentieth-century voice.
Stephen Kessler

The radiant, devastating poetry of Miguel Ángel Bustos reads as a glorious act of resistance to Argentina's dictadura, and to all brutal takeovers of language and reality that attempt to deaden us with clichĂ© and denial. We can be certain: "the world had changed with his howl. With his strange howl." And "were a monument to a howl possible," it would no doubt be Lucina Schell's dazzling, courageous translation, which never for a moment flinches from difficulty as she delivers this piercing, perturbing message from history. This book has moved me unspeakably. What a masterpiece, and what a spectacular translation!—Michelle Gil-Montero

Miguel Ángel Ramón Bustos von Joecker, un poeta desaparecido, a victim of Argentina's Dirty War, reappears, is made visible to the anglophone reader, in this splendid translation of his book of poems, Visión de los hijos del mal. The translator, Lucina Schell, presents us these beautiful remains of the murdered poet, the words that survived him like the exhumed dead calcium of his very body: "When I die / beneath the inhumane song of my/brothers / I'll be a relic urine smell. / I'll remain in my bones for all / eternity. Amen."—Arturo Mantecón

Bustos is a major poet and Vision of the Children of Evil is an important book, not only for our time, but, well, all. Lucina Schell's translations are a gift: thoughtful, imaginative, faithful, smart.—Mark Statman

“A dream interprets me. Whether it understands me, I’m not sure,’’ goes the 18th aphorism of the opening pages of Miguel Ángel Bustos’ Vision of the Children of Evil (Visión de los Hijos del Mal) in the English translation by Lucina Schell. Vision of the Children of Evil is forthcoming in a dual edition with Schell’s translation of Bustos’ book Fantastic Fragments (Fragmentos Fantásticos), this fall from independent publisher co•im•press.
Was Bustos the prophet of his own detention and disappearance? There is an uncanny sense of it in many poems, such as the self-deprecating “A Horizontal Job.”
Poor Miguel Ángel. I’ve always said he had the worst luck. There are lucky dogs — but he’s one unlucky dog.
He had looked for work. The offices emery-polished and the banks full. He had looked with the utmost sadness.
One day he crossed an avenue — Corrientes, I believe, or 9 de Julio — and disappeared.
Thanks to Lucina Schell’s translation, we begin to explore that very question in the language that wrote Sherlock Holmes.
Translation, in a most basic understanding, is an interpretative act. They say of a pianist, like Argentinean Martha Argerich playing Chopin or Schumann, that she is ‘’the interpreter.’’ Is translation interpretation of written music, so that it can be heard? Is it an interpenetration of worlds seemingly impossible to connect? After having read his original texts in Spanish, reading newly-completed English translations of the Argentinean poète maudit, Miguel Ángel Bustos’s works Vision of the Children of Evil , gave a hair-raising experience, like seeing an open book through very clear water, submerged yet with swimming. It was akin to reading William S. Burroughs’ harrowing opioid-dream Naked Lunch for the very first time as a teenager, when the curiosity to explore narcotics usually dawns, alongside the want of serious books, in a healthy young person needing to de-school.
Some short lines, aphorisms in Bustos’ Fragmentos Fantásticos, bring to mind the last collection of texts Kafka wrote, a book of aphorisms Max Brod called The Zurau (naming it after the rural place in West Bohemia). Kafka liked to say of Dostoyevsky, “we are blood brothers.’’ Maybe Miguel-Ángel Bustos, vanished poet whose remains were found in 2014 by forensic examiners, could have passed some literary DNA exam and been proven a blood brother to the tubercolic writer of the Zurau, at least when it comes such aphorisms as Bustos’ “When my father died, his oblivion was born’’ (Aphorism 7 of Kafka). Lines of Kafka’s Zurau, such as, “A cage went out into the world, in search of a bird,” may find more resonance and counterpoint in Bustos’ surreal writings rather than his confessional ones, in language at once veiled and revelatory.
Schell’s translation is reluctant toward categories and easy syntheses, weary of simple definitions of any thing — a North American who flung herself for years into the dark history and present of Argentina, learning the obscure dialect of Argentine “ríoplatense.’’ The Spanish of the Río de la Plata seems to have become an innate, basic understanding of that gut-wrenching history, and remotest of countries (of which her interviewer is a citizen and byproduct). Yet she can confidently admit that Bustos, as well as Burroughs were “poètes maudits,’’ whose work lives in a reverberation with the hallucinatory and surrealist dark voyages begun with Charles Baudelaire’s syphilitic inscriptions like “Spleen’’ and “Les Fleurs du Mal.’’ Arthur Rimbaud’s quest (not a Google-search!) for the “alchemy of the word.”
Another, more recent poète maudit would be poet Franz Wright, whom Schell acknowledges as a possible Anglo companion to Miguel Ángel Bustos. A poet who seemed to have prophesied the way he would die. He was a maldito, maudit, damned in the most direct sense: many stanzas indicate an acute foreknowledge of the way he would end. There are the growling police hounds, the persecution, the cell, the oblivion, the river.
The collected poems are imbued, as Schell points out, with the knowledge of there being many fates worse than death. That is an innately Argentinean knowledge, an instruction given by the humid air of the Pampas, shaping the Argentinean talent for death. To get good at it, it is first required to learn of worse in the spectrum of possibilities — for otherwise we would mystify it, like amateurs. Bustos, a mystic, speaks of taking off this life “like a blood-soaked shirt.’’
The original maudit, Rimbaud, sadly withdrew at age 20 from his poetic striving, took off his blood-soaked poet’s shirt in favor of piracy and weapons-trading near the gulf of Yemen — perhaps a much more highly-revenue’d endeavor; perhaps Rimbaud was so full of poetry he needed to seek the escape out of it.
Miguel Ángel Bustos’ Pan-American nomadism was not a journey away from poetry. His search was not for the Wagnerian grail of Argentinian romantic nationalism that produced part of the Creole poetry of the 19th century. Bustos, rather, sought that “alchemy of the word,’’ genuine degenerate art. His paeans seek those who were destroyed by Argentina. This, next to his participation in revolutionary politics and journalism, secured the paranoid wrath of the Argentinean military regime that grabbed power in 1976 from ousted President Isabela Martínez-Perón, herself a right-wing ruler whose “Triple A,” Argentinian Anticommunist Alliance of intelligence agents and gunmen had been tracking and monitoring dissidents like Bustos and other poets and those politically or intellectual active as potential “public enemies.’’
Bustos died in 1976, a captive in the ESMA prison camp under the first junta led by Jorge Rafael Videla. We know today, because of the discovery of his remains in 2014, that the poet was shot by firing squad. Long before his death, Bustos wrote, in a state he claimed was one resembling the possession of a medieval exorcism, that he would live on in his bones, a relic, perhaps dropped in a bright river.
Bustos wrote and drew labyrinthine traveler's chronicles about the Andes countries. These are interspersed with what resemble psychonaut travels through hyperspace dimensions and through time, meetings with angels who have names like “Ataíl.’’ Pan-Americanism led Bustos in and painfully out of love in Lima and in Argentina, through the doors of a psychiatric hospital, where he met Argentinean poet Jacobo Fijman who, perhaps, led Bustos to write “with the soft tenderness of the mad. The sweetness of the crazies of this world,” as Bustos put it. (Fijman is the subject of a future piece in the series Notes on a Journey to the Ever-Dying Lands, along with Ángel Escobar, Marisa Wagner and other “Manicomio Liber poets.’’)
The notion of travel, today, carries airs of convention: “air-miles,’’ a deceptive leisure-artifice of middle-class life. But in Bustos’ Argentina, (and after his disappearance, until the globalization of the 1990s) most Argentinians had never visited a foreign country beyond Uruguay; a scarce few had followed the river Paraná past the Brazilian border in Porto Alegre. Chile was often an enemy, walled off by Andes. Isolation made the world beyond Argentina’s borders seem a baroque map from Borges’ stories and bestiaries. The Argentine consciousness was once shaped by such isolation. Deserts in the provinces north decked with salt and sand, and deserts south and center resemble Mars, and standing deracinated of most original nomadic populations. The absence of Mapuche, Ona, Calchaqui peoples and their Incan conquerors left an emptiness that Bustos deemed unbearable. In the second poem of “Arrangement of Time Without Dimension,’’ Bustos says to his mother who raised him Catholic (cited from Schell’s translation):
“Mother I was Christian like those who landed before on these shores.
 I sleep on a cross
 I die on a cross the cross was the first cry
I heard arriving in this world.
 Cross of the most sorrowful blood.
 Men have climbed the cross. Transformed into
mute gods. Tied in bronze and crystal they cry out.
Naturally I won’t untie anyone so weak poor corpse” (continues, p. 47)
But the emptiness that causes that pain is Outer, carved by campaigns led by 19th century generals who hoped in vainglory to prove the country could be “modernized’’ to attract foreign investors. The dynastic and family heirs of accomplished killers like Martínez de Hoz and the Bullrich family loom over the Argentine population to this day, recently finding their way from their sprawling ranches into national security and elected office. Shadows accumulate like blood-soaked shirts that somehow do not diminish, are never pulled off completely. There is no exorcism of the emptiness.
Travels while writing and enacting near-shamanic investigations gave Miguel-Ángel the inner experience that the artist seeks more than mere “Real Life’’ experience. In Brazil, Bustos experimented writing in Portuguese, in coastal rhythms and Brazilian concrete poetry. Many of his more visionary poems are like maps of the fallen colossus of the Andean cultures and their destruction at the hands of conquistadors, mourning the Inca’s and Mapuche people’s bloodshed. That subject fed many of his psychedelic prose-pieces (also in the forthcoming Vision of the Children of Evil) that tell of travel across time, possession by witnesses to the time of the early colonization, accompanied by angels with warped Semitic names, as well as Incan and pre-Columbian gods.
Despite his hatred of the conquistador and his self-hate at being a white Creole, much of his poetry expresses what reads as a heretical Christian mysticism, a modernist, revolutionary continuation of that archaic Spanish tradition of “the Long dark night of the soul,’’ by St. Juan de la Cruz. Born Miguél Ángel Ramón Bustos Von Joecker, this poet of Spanish and German immigrant descent also shares a common element with Sylvia Plath, who wrote of her father’s Nazi lampshade and her Jewish Taroc pack, as well as Franz Wright, who was also partly of German-American descent (he liked to say “the Germans get straight to the point: Selbst-Mord, Self-Murder, the German word for suicide). In all three of these Pan-American poets, a Germanic gene became a point of torment for thinkers who were conscientious and spiritual in confronting colossal crimes, all making the case for personal survival and humor, they ultimately abandoned all illusions of innocence, embracing despair.
Comparisons to other mystic poets also hold: a poem of a vision from the North of Argentina — a chorus of llamas, and a condor who is asked to pass a test — recalls the poem Conference of the Birds by Iranian Sufi mystic Farid ud-Din Attar. - Arturo Desimone
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Miguel Ángel Bustos (1932-1976) was a major poet of the Argentine Generation of 1960, an illustrator, and a literary critic. During his lifetime, he published Cuatro Murales (1957), Corazón de piel afuera (1959), Fragmentos fantásticos (1965), Visión de los hijos del mal (1967), winner of the second Buenos Aires Municipal Prize for Poetry, and El Himalaya o la moral de los pájaros (1970). Bustos's last book was published with the support of a grant from the National Foundation for the Arts. His poetry was included in many contemporaneous anthologies of the Generation of 1960, and in 1998 Alberto Szpunberg published the anthology of his poetry Despedida de los ángeles. Bustos studied painting with Juan Battle Planas in the 1960s and had a solo exhibition of his artworks in 1970, with a catalog written by Aldo Pellegrini. In 2014, Miguel Ángel Bustos and Emiliano Bustos had a joint exhibition of their paintings and drawings at the Centro Cultural Borges in Buenos Aires. During the 1970s, Bustos worked primarily as a literary critic for Siete Días, Panorama, La Opinión, and El Cronista Comercial, and his collected prose was published in 2007. His collected poetry was published in 2008, the first time it had appeared in print in more than thirty years. On May 30, 1976, Bustos was arrested by military police and for decades remained "disappeared," his work censored. In 2014, Bustos's remains were identified by forensic anthropologists. It is now known that he was executed by firing squad on June 20, 1976.


Gamal al-Ghitani - The lamps are a sign of the end of time. They are indications of a world deviating from God's design

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Gamal al-Ghitani, Zayni Barakat, Trans. by  Farouk Abdel Wahab, The American University in Cairo Press, 2010.

“In the course of my long travels I have never seen a city so devastated. After a long time I ventured out into the streets. Death, cold and heavy, hung in the air. Walls have no value here, doors have been eliminated. No one is certain that they will see another day.”
The Egypt of the Mamluk dynasty witnessed a period of artistic ostentation and social and political upheaval, at the heart of which lay the unsolved question of the ruler’s legitimacy. Now, in 1516, the Mamluk reign is coming to an end with the advance of the invading Ottomans. The numerous narrators, among them a Venetian traveler and several native Muslims, tell the story of the rise to power of the ruthless, enigmatic, and puritanical governor of Cairo, Zayni Barakat ibn Musa, whose control of the corrupt city is effected only through a complicated network of spies and informers

Zayni Barakat is set in Egypt in the 16th century, chronicling the rise (and semi-fall) of Zayni Barakat ibn Musa during a time when the Mamluk dynasty is on its last legs, and culminating in the conquest by the Ottomans.
       Zayni Barakat himself remains a somewhat shadowy and distant figure, as the story is presented in the form of both official announcements and accounts by others -- which often include hearsay or gossip, as well as spy-reports on him.
       Zayni Barakat is given one of the most powerful positions in Egypt, the Markets Inspectorship. As Muhtasib he not only oversees most aspects of commerce, but is also responsible for safeguarding public morals. The official decree regarding his appointment remarks on his: "virtue and integrity, his honesty and righteousness, his strength and firmness, his revered respectability, his showing no favouritism to the high and the mighty, his piety", and he impresses almost immediately by coyly turning the position down. Of course, eventually he can be convinced to take it -- and proves a firm- and fairly even-handed bureaucrat.
       Wielding a great deal of power, Zayni Barakat tries to implement his own ideas. He addresses the people directly -- something no Muhtasib ever bothered to do -- and promises to control not only Cairo but all of Egypt. And he warns that: "he will have agents monitoring, policing and staking out inequities wherever they occur; and these agents will inform him."
       In a suspicious world, where power is tenuously held, many are concerned about his plans and his powers, and so he is also being spied upon and monitored. There's a pervasive culture of having informants and of turning anyone and everyone into a collaborator -- making for a world with little trustworthy foundation, as everyone shows a false face and double-deals. Zayni Barakat's openness towards the people -- a willingness to address them directly -- is also perceived as a threat by those in power, who never bother having anything to do with those they rule over, relying on their own spies to be their eyes and ears and connexion to the world.
       One of Zayni Barakat's ideas is to light Cairo at night, by hanging lights in all the streets and alleys which his men would light each night. Surprisingly -- or perhaps not -- , many prefer darkness, and it proves a very controversial idea, eliciting some heated objections:

Demand that he ban the lamps, which pierce the veil of modesty, which encourage women to go out after evening prayers. [...] The lamps are a sign of the end of time. They are indications of a world deviating from God's design.
       The reactionary forces ultimately triumph in this case, and the lamps are withdrawn, Egypt stumbling back into familiar corrupt darkness rather than embracing the new and the new possibilities it would offer. Here and elsewhere it is also (relatively) petty obsessions that distract from the true threat, which comes from without: almost before they know it, the Ottomans have come and easily conquered.
       Zayni Barakat is, of course, not merely a novel about backward attitudes and the difficulty of political and moral reform in the 16th century, but also meant to remind readers of the situation in modern Egypt. As Edward Said notes in foreword, Zayni Barakat obviously corresponds to Gamal Abdel Nasser:

Al-Ghitani's disenchanted reflections upon the past directly associate Zayni's rule with the murky atmosphere of intrigue, conspiracy and multiple schemes that characterized Abdel Nasser's rule during the 1960s, a time, according to Ghitani, spent on futile efforts to control and improve the moral standard of Egyptian life, even as Israel (the Ottomans) prepared for invasion and regional dominance.
       Zayni Barakat is not an exemplary reformer: manipulative and willing to employ many of the same methods as those in power (if, arguably, to less nefarious and/or personal ends) he seeks to impose his vision by almost any means possible (and he's perfectly willing to continue doing so under the next regime ...). He wants better for his country -- he is certainly more fair and just than almost all with any power or money -- but it's too radical a departure, and the system won't bear it. Still, his story makes for a very colourful tale, with al-Ghitani effectively using a variety of perspectives to convey the implications of Zayni Barakat's actions.
       Appealingly exotic, and while it may not have the same resonance for Western readers that it might for a Middle Eastern audience Zayni Barakat is also successful simply as a historical fiction. Worthwhile. - www.complete-review.com/reviews/egypt/ghitani.htm

The Book of Epiphanies
Gamal al-Ghitani, The Book of Epiphanies: An Egyptian Novel, Trans. by Farouk Abdel Wahab, The American University in Cairo Press, 2012.

Upon returning from a trip abroad, the author–narrator learns that his father has died during his absence. Crushed with grief and guilt, he begins a journey of discovery of self and existence. Beset by doubts and at times despair, he almost gives up, but then is granted the priceless gift of appearing before the mythical–mystical Diwan, the council that oversees all affairs of this world, keeping a record of everything that has ever happened or existed and righting wrongs past and present. With the guidance of the Great Master, the Prophet’s grandson al-Husayn, he is able to witness events of his father’s life, his own life, and that of his beleaguered country as he progresses through Sufi states and stations.
Granted the ability to be in several places and various eras simultaneously, the narrator is able to bring together heroes and villains and great events and debacles in Egypt’s and all of Islam’s history. Alternating scenes depict the historical martyrdom of al-Husayn in Karbala, and a fantastical confrontation between two camps fighting over the soul of Egypt: in one camp we meet President Gamal Abdel Nasser, al-Husayn, the narrator’s own father, and a ragtag army of valiant but ill-equipped Egyptians in combat with one led by Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin.
This surrealist novel with political and mystical overtones and an edge of satire reveals one of Egypt’s greatest living writers at his finest.
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Gamal al-Ghitani, The Zafarani Files: An Egyptian Novel,
The American University in Cairo Press, 2009.

An unknown observer is watching the residents of a small, closely-knit neighborhood in Cairo's old city, making notes. The college graduate, the street vendors, the political prisoner, the cafe owner, the taxi driver, the beautiful green-eyed young wife with the troll of a husband - all are subjects of surveillance. The watcher's reports flow seamlessly into a narrative about Zafarani Alley, a village tucked into a corner of the city, where intrigue is the main entertainment, and everyone has a secret. Suspicion, superstition, and a wicked humour prevail in this darkly comedic novel. Drawing upon the experience of his own childhood growing up in al-Hussein, where the fictional Zafarani Alley is located, Gamal al-Ghitani has created a world richly populated with characters and situations that possess authenticity behind their veils of satire. 
Pyramid Texts
Gamal al-Ghitani, Pyramid Texts, Trans. by Humphrey Davies, The American University in Cairo Press, 2007.

Annihilation (excerpt)

Weaving strands of Sufi mysticism and medieval Islamic history into ancient Egypt's most enduring symbols, "Pyramid Texts" beguiles the imagination with its masterful use of language, its haunting parables, and its glimpses of divine revelation. In a series of chapters each shorter than the last - so that they taper ultimately into nothingness - the Gamal al-Ghitani traces the obsessions that have drawn men over the centuries to the brooding presence of the pyramids. 

Pyramid Texts is literally a pyramid of texts: the book (novel ? story collection ?) consists of fourteen texts that grow progressively shorter, the last few only a sentence or a few words long, culminating in the final one that offers: "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing." Al-Ghitani builds his way to this point by also moving from more straightforward narrative to more mystical impressions and evocations.
       There are several 'stories' among the texts, but even among these al-Ghitani's approach is rarely straightforward narrative. The first text, Anticipation, is fairly straightforward, but presented in short bits, each separated by some words of (not necessarily obviously related) wisdom, such as: "Time, and the law of the appointed term, dictate that what was distant at the beginning will become close". The last of these is: "Each path leads inevitably to another", and this is a book full of such paths. The pyramids are always the focus. In some of the texts the paths are literally on the pyramids: one evocatively describes the experts who climb the structures, knowing the exact paths that one has to take, while in another a group enters the labyrinth-like interior of a pyramid. But even for those at some distance, in Cairo proper, it's always the same: "The pyramids were always with him."
       Al-Ghitani offers a many-toned paean to the pyramids, effectively conveying their grandeur and mystery. Rather than detailed realistic description he takes a more mystical approach. The group that enters the pyramids, for example, diminishes in size (though they hardly notice) until the experience is entirely an individual one -- a story that easily stands on its own. In Realization the Caliph orders measurements taken of the pyramid -- and after much work Ibn al-Shihna the Measurer has to report the apparent absurdity that:

"The width at the mid-point is equal to that at its base. Neither more nor less. The length of each side is four hundred spans. My lord, there is no slope and no decrease."
       But for al-Ghitani the pyramids are inherently unknowable: even 'measuring' them in any traditional sense is pointless. Such mysticism doesn't always translate well, but comes across fairly effectively here: Ghitani offers enough good twists and ideas that it doesn't sound too hokey (most of the time). Still, this (dominant) aspect of the book may not appeal to those who don't have the patience for this sort of thing. Those who do have the patience are, however, rewarded by a pretty decent spin of ideas and concepts.
       One can't help but feel that something -- a certain feel -- is lost in translation, but Pyramid Texts works quite well in translation too. And there are many bits that impress -- such as the opening to Annihilation, a typical example of the feel and presentation and subtlety of the book:

     ... Of an old family, much noted, mentioned in manuscripts that have yet to be printed.
       Certainly of interest. - www.complete-review.com/reviews/egypt/ghitani2.htm

Gamal al-Ghitani, The Book of Illuminations

A severed human head is floating in the sky above the holy city of Kufa. After a while it spots an iridescent green bird slowly approaching it. When the bird is close enough, it becomes apparent that the strange creature has a human face. The head recognises the features of Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian officer who led the assassination of President Anwar Sadat during the Victory Parade in Cairo on October 6 , 1981, and was executed together with the other conspirators by a firing squad the following year. The bird inserts its beak into the flying head’s mouth and gives it three drops of a sweet drink that immediately alleviates its hunger, making it forget the taste of all the food ever consumed before. There is a bleeding wound in the body of the anthropomorphic bird. A drop of its blood flies into the outer space to become a star, the Star of Khalid. When the bird flies away, the head continues its solitary travel through the air until it sees somewhere in the desert a group of armed men. The troop of seventy is led by the second president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser, and its mission is to take revenge on the murderers of Husayn ibn Ali, son of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was killed and decapitated in the Battle of Karbala on October 10, 680. The participants of the punitive expedition eventually come toe to toe with an enemy force comprising thousands of fighters. The opposing coalition includes the army of the second Caliph of Umayyad Caliphate Yazid ibn Muawiya (it is they who slaughtered Husayn and his companions), Israeli troops, agents of Mossad in mufti, US quick reaction force servicemen, and mercenaries of all types. Amidst this motley rabble, cowardly keeping to the rear, is discernible Nasser’s notorious successor Anwar Sadat. The other well-known political figures supporting the assassins of Husayn are Jimmy Carter, John Foster Dulles, Ronald Reagan, Moshe Dayan, and Ariel Sharon. A ferocious battle ensues: the arrows are fired, the lances are thrust, and the swords are crossed. The supporters of Nasser (most of them were killed in the Arab-Israeli wars in another spacetime) put up a stiff resistance, but the strengths are unequal, and they fall one by one until there is only one man standing – their leader. The enemy fighters close in on the defenseless Nasser from all sides and pierce him with arrows. The treacherous Sadat delivers the coup de grâce by lopping Nasser’s head off with a sword. The horde of marauders then pounces on the headless body and rips its clothes off for souvenirs. The flying head contemplates the massacre with great bitterness, knowing all too well that it cannot interfere and change anything. It’s role is that of a passive observer. What makes the whole thing even more unbearable is the fact that amongst the fallen supporters of Nasser is its father. The head belongs to the acclaimed Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani, and it was detached from his body some time before by the great master of Sufism Muhyiddin ibn Arabi aslo known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar.
A hasty disclaimer is in order. This wacky episode is in no way representative of al-Ghitani’s novel, and, if you approach it expecting something in the vein of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning with Oriental colour, you will be gravely disappointed. Despite its non-linear structure and a heavy slant towards the supernatural or, rather, the mystical, the book mostly deals with a very straightforward story based on the biographical facts of the author’s life as well as the life of his parents. It is a very personal book that can even be regarded as an exercise of self-therapy couched in the form of a novel. I ended up having love/hate relationship with it. It certainly did not turn out what I had expected it to be. At some points I found it hard going and even thought of abandoning it altogether. Nevertheless, I am glad to have experienced this peculiar novel, for I have learned a lot of new things and had an opportunity to look at the known political and historical events from a perspective different to the one I am used to. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, but there is little doubt that it is an important literary accomplishment that should not be ignored by a serious reader of world literature. As you probably know, last year Gamal al-Ghitani passed away. I have decided to read and review The Book of Illuminations as a tribute to one of the most important contemporary writers in Arabic. While working on this review I benefited a lot from Ziad Elmarsafy’s study Sufism in the Contemporary Arabic Novel that has a whole chapter dedicated to al-Ghitani’s book. Where the credit is due, I will say so. The numerous annotations by Khaled Osman, the translator of the book into French, have also been of great help: without them a lot more would have passed over my head than it eventually did. I also apologise in advance for all the inconsistencies in the romanisation of Arabic terms here, but since different sources used different approaches to this task, I resigned myself to keeping the transliterations the way they had been presented in each of the texts I consulted.
First things first. Some of you may ask: “Why did The Untranslated choose to review a book that has already been translated into English and is easily available to anyone interested?” Well, not so fast, folks. Let the fact that Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel can be found in English (published as The Book of Epiphanies  by The American University in Cairo Press) not mislead you: it is just a partial translation of the original work. It is enough to compare the page count: the French translation which I have read has 874 pages, and the Arabic original – 815 pages. Now compare that to the piddling 288 pages of the English version: to say the least, a lot has been left out. As I have already said elsewhere, it is my philosophy not to read a book at all rather than read its abridged translation, which is why I regard al-Ghitani’s novel as good as unavailable in English, and will continue to look forward to its complete translation.
The original title of the novel is Kitāb Al-Tajalliyāt, where the first word means “book” and the second one is the plural form of the word tajallī which, being an important concept in Sufi philosophy, is rich with connotations and, therefore, can be translated in various ways. Here is what Ziad Elmarsafy writes in this regard:

The signifier tajallī from which the title is taken covers a wide semantic field. In The Book of the Definitions of Sufism Ibn ʿArabī defines it as “The secret illuminations that are revealed to the hearts [of the believers]. Revelation of this sort is a privilege reserved for the initiated, making manifest the presence and behaviour of the divine in the cosmos. […] In Ibn ʿArabī ‘s Kitab Al-Tajalliyāt, the author relates a series of dialogues with all of his [dead] predecessors on the Sufi path, who appear to him through the process of  tajallī. Were we to attempt a synthesis of the semantic field of tajallī in Ibn ʿArabī’s idiom, we would say that the word refers to the apparition, revelation, disclosure or unveiling of a given thing, person or idea that would normally be hidden in the order of the unknown or unknowable.
Not only does the title of al-Ghitani’s novel contain this rather complex term, but, taken as a whole, it is an allusion to the name of a treatise by one of the most celebrated Sufi mystics of all time. Of course, such homage found in the title of a novel is not such a rare case. We can recall here, for example, William Gaddis’ masterpiece The Recognitions whose title has been borrowed from a third-century religious romance believed to have been written by Clement of Rome.  The French translator of al-Ghitani’s novel in his introduction states that although the literal translation of tajalliyāt is “theophanies”, he has chosen to render this word in French as illuminations (illuminations) to  reflect better the way the Egyptian author utilises the term, for he applies it for a wide range of the narrator’s mystical experiences that are not limited to the manifestation of the sacred, but also include the apparition of the profane. Taking my cue from Khaled Osman, I am going to refer to the novel in English as The Book of Illuminations.
One of the cornerstones of Sufi philosophy is the notion of journey or voyage (safar), the category which is applied to the spiritual journey of the novice on the way to unity with God. Such a voyage will consist of different stations, and the traveller may experience a number of states. The station (maqaam) denotes a certain stage in Sufi’s development achieved through his own hard work and through the guidance of his mentors. Each maqaam is a merit earned by the Sufi’s conscious endeavors on the spiritual path. In contrast, the state (haal) is a transitory state of mind that is granted by God to the mystic, and, being a product of God’s grace, it cannot be attained by intentional effort. All these concepts are used by al-Ghitani as the titles for the three parts of the novel: 1. The Journeys, 2. The Stations, 3. The States. Thus, just by looking at the title and the table of contents, we get a hint that the novel is steeped in Sufi philosophy, and that the novelistic form has been used to disseminate among the readership some of the concepts developed by Sufis, most probably presenting them in a new light. One realises upon completing the novel that these assumptions are actually true. In an article, the author himself stresses the tremendous role played by the writings of ibn Arabi in the composition of the Book of Illuminations.

I have relied upon the language of Ibn ‘Arabi. I have made pains to penetrate into its secrets, into the essence of this essential writing which is rare in the entire corpus of Arabic prose, into that amazing imagination which runs free with its particular visions and its ability to manifest itself.
In this respect, the book Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is thick with the presence of Ibn ‘Arabi. He is a leading personality, and, as such, has guided me and solved problems that I have faced. He has made me see the truths of being and the details of humanity. Just as he ventures the propagation of an epistle in his amazing general introduction to the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, I have ventured the propagation of my view. What I want is to announce it to my people and to the children of mankind. Six-and-a-half years were spent in the writing of the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt. Time shaped its production since my dear mother passed away three years into the writing of this book. It seems that the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is externally an expression of pain brought about by loss and death. However, essentially, it is an expression of life and the rare struggle on the part of those who are simple for the sake of the continuation of the dearest thing the Creator has given us.
The main impetus for writing the novel comes from Gamal al-Ghitani’s personal tragedy: the death of his father Ahmad al-Ghitani. When it happened, the writer was abroad and could not be present at the funeral. The ensuing feelings of loss, remorse and irreversibility inspired the author to write a novel in which his alter ego is granted the mystical gift of being able to travel in time by means of illuminations, thereby regaining the lost time when his father was still alive as well as rediscovering and reassessing his own self. In the introductory part called The First Illuminations the grief-stricken Gamal tells us how a mystical entity called the Divan is manifested to him and how its custodians endow him with the supernatural ability to travel within illuminations. We never get the exact explanation what the Divan is. When Gamal sees it for the first time he admits that his terrestrial vocabulary is insufficient to describe it. The best he can do is to say that some of the elements of this enormous edifice bring to his mind huge cenotaphs to unknown soldiers, the delicate façades of Asian temples, and natural canyons cutting through mountain ranges.  It is some kind of mystical headquarters that oversees our world, rules over our destinies and determines the shape of things to come. Personally I was reminded of the Aleph from the famous short story by Borges. The Divan is governed by a triad of historical personages belonging to Ahl al-Bayt (literally “People of the House” a term used to denote the family of Prophet Muhammad). Its president is Sayyeda Zaynab, daughter of Ali and Fatimah, and her two assistants are her brothers Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali, revered as the second and the third Shia Imams respectively. Every Saturday evening of Earth time the governors of the Divan hold a session during which they decide on the major events for the coming week.
Gamal’s wish to overcome the limitations of time and space is granted by the Divan. His subsequent journeys consist of three major stages covered in each of the three parts of the novel, and for each stage he is appointed a guide assisting him in each series of illuminations. In the first part his guide is Husayn himself. In the second part this mission is taken over by ibn Arabi. As for the identity of the third guide, it is open for conjecture, as Gamal is forbidden to reveal it. In the course of the mystic voyages under the guidance of the three masters Gamal revisits and relives both the past of his family and that of his country. He witnesses the events before his own birth, travels to the ancient times at the dawn of the Islamic civilisation, and also re-experiences the major events in his own life taking a detached view of himself. Following Gamal’s time travel is not always an easy task for the Western reader, as the amount of the required cultural baggage to fully understand the text is rather formidable. Just to give you the idea: imagine that you have to read Moby Dick knowing next to nothing about all the Biblical allusions running through it. Of course, you will be able to accomplish your reading, but your lacunae will be tremendous. In case of The Book of Illuminations, the concentration of all the Islamic lore diffused in it is even stronger: al-Ghitani integrates into his text numerous references to a variety of Sufi treatises as well as direct quotations from the Qur’an. Not to be lost in this wealth of information, the reader also needs a guide, and, luckily enough, this role is brilliantly fulfilled by the translator of the novel who has compiled an impressive collection of more than 300 end-notes explicating most of the obscure allusions and clearly indicating the origin of each Qur’anic quotation.
By visiting different episodes in the past as well as talking to inanimate witnesses of his family history, such as a stone wall, a palm tree, and a plot of land, Gamal gradually puts together the puzzle of his father’s life story. On the whole, it is a rather plain story of Ahmad al-Ghitani’s struggle at achieving social mobility and giving a better future to his children. Ahmad leaves his native city of Guhayna in Upper Egypt and sets out to Cairo in a mortician’s wagon with a big dream of receiving education at the prestigious Al-Azhar University and subsequently gaining financial stability and a higher social status. Although his ambitions mostly remain unfulfilled, he does manage to settle in the capital, get a menial job at the Ministry of Agriculture and later bring over his family. By his self-abnegating labour, grim determination and self-sacrifice Ahmad succeeds in providing for his children decent education and making it possible for them to escape poverty and get on in life. Despite all the supernatural elements and the mysticism, The Book of Illuminations is mainly a factological exploration of  the destiny of a single Egyptian family being pushed towards a better life by the perseverance and stoicism of the father. The story of the al-Ghitanis is narrated with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, for the abandoned dream of Ahmad al-Ghitani has been vicariously fulfilled in the accomplishments of his son.
Besides narrating the story of his parents, Gamal al-Ghitani also tells us about the major military conflicts in the Middle East as well as about the host of political and social issues faced by Egypt during the presidencies of Abdel Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. At first glance, Gamal’s admiration for Nasser is liable to cause a certain bewilderment in anyone familiar with the author’s biography.  It is exactly during Nasser’s regime that al-Ghitani was arrested for political dissent, put in jail and subjected to torture. The writer’s imprisonment and tortures are recounted  in  unflinching detail in the third part of the novel. In spite of all that, Nasser is represented as one of the narrator’s spiritual mentors. In one of the illuminations he even speaks in the voice of Gamal’s father. Sadat, on the other hand, is shown as evil incarnate. Never called by his name, he is referred to in the original Arabic as الجلف الجافي (al-jilf al-jaafiy). This alliterative epithet is rendered in the French translation as butor brutal, and the corresponding English equivalent would be “brutish boor”. By depicting Sadat in a most derogatory manner and by pouring on him torrents of curses, al-Ghitani shares the hatred of many Egyptians who believe that Nasser’s successor betrayed his nation when he signed the Camp David Accords with Israel’s Prime Minister. For this deed, in the writer’s view, Sadat has forever secured a prominent place among the arch-villains of the Arabic World. For Al-Ghitani the greatest virtue of Nasser is his care for the poor and the oppressed which found its expression in his socialist reforms. Nasser as the leader of common folk  is opposed to the supercilious and luxury-loving Sadat who has alienated himself from the majority of his nation. The personal suffering of the novelist cannot overbalance what he sees as the biggest humiliation in the history of the Arab Republic of Egypt perpetrated by Sadat when he sat at the table of negotiations with the Israeli leadership. The writer’s opposite attitudes towards the two presidents are vividly presented in the illumination summarised at the beginning of this review: Nasser is depicted as the valiant champion of the just cause intent on avenging Martyr Husayn, whereas Sadat is shown as a cowardly and treacherous creep sided with Husayn’s  assassins.
By mentioning the oneiric episode of the battle in the desert, I, most probably, will provoke a legitimate question: what is the meaning of al-Ghitani’s flying head that is observing this gory tableau? As I have already said, the head of the narrator was cut off by the Sufi philosopher ibn Arabi, and, in fact, it is just one of the several instances of the supernatural experience undergone by Gamal which Ziad Elmarsafy in his analysis of the novel identifies as “separation from the self”. When ibn Arabi’s sword falls on the neck of the novelist, this separation in the scholar’s words takes “brutal physical form”. The symbolism of decapitation in the novel is closely related with the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. When al-Ghitani finds himself transported all alone to the city of Kufa in the distant past and is approached there by ibn Arabi, he desperately begs the philosopher to reunite him with Husayn, his guide appointed by the Divan at this stage of his journey . By subjecting the narrator to the same fate as befell Husayn in his earthly existence, ibn Arabi both grants al-Ghitani’s wish and teaches him a lesson. As to what kind of lesson this symbolical execution exactly denotes, I guess there might be various interpretations, especially by those who are more familiar with Sufi philosophy than myself. As for the mystical separation of al-Ghitani’s self, one of its instances occurs when the writer is taking part in a literary colloquium in the Moroccan city of Fez. A mysterious stranger in a white bournous, who is invisible to everyone but al-Ghitani, beckons to the writer, and the latter splits into two versions of himself, one of which follows the summoner while the other stays in the conference room. The stranger takes the separated self of Gamal to the famous Al Qarawiyyin mosque where he witnesses all the major Sufi philosophers, mystics and hermits from all periods of history assemble for a prayer. After this grandiose spectacle, the double of  al-Ghitani  is catapulted by a rainbow into the outer space where he travels through the galaxies and nebulae at the speed of light. Elmarsafy identifies this incident as an instance of mi’raj or “spiritual ascension”. Although this term is primarily used with regard to Muhammad’s ascent to heaven, Sufis saw in mi’raj the culmination of the spiritual development and the acquisition of ultimate mystical knowledge.  Another noteworthy doubling of  the narrator takes place in an alternative past, in which the young Gamal lives with his family in Paris. In this version of the past his father works in an embassy; he is a poet and a political exile opposed to the regime of Anwar Sadat. Gamal meets a beautiful girl called Laura and immediately falls in love. They have a passionate affair whose outcome is a stunning revelation that Laura is none other than the female version of al-Ghitani. In general, the category of self is constantly challenged throughout the novel, being shown as unstable, unpredictable, and misleading. Not that one would expect something else form a book shaped to such an extent by the writings of Sufi masters.
For me The Book of Illuminations works best during its various miraculous and mystical moments, perhaps because they are unlike most of what I have encountered so far in Western literature. The weakest parts of the novel, in my opinion, are those in which al-Ghitani minutely narrates the everyday domestic problems of his family in Cairo. Although the hardships experienced by his parents and himself aroused my sympathy, I have to confess that all those recollections of childhood were a chore to read, and I tried to race through these episodes as fast as possible to reach the next instalment of fantastic journeys, transformations and revelations. It is a long and uneven novel that has as many flaws as merits, but despite my mixed feelings about it I consider my time with it well spent, and if I was given the supernatural ability to revisit the past like its protagonist, I would not  try to dissuade my earlier self from reading  and reviewing it.
- https://theuntranslated.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/the-book-of-illuminations-%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%AC%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA-le-livre-des-illuminations-by-gamal-al-ghitani/

Gamal al-Ghitani, Egyptian Novelist With a Political Bent, Dies at 70 ...