World Literature and Languages

(Syndicated from Viewpoint Online)

Globalization has produced a much more provincial culture. Turbo-charged capitalism has very little time for culture and books. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is probably the first piece of world literature which in itself was a synthesis of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures.

World literature and languages concern us all. This is not a subject meant only for specialists. It attracts us all. First, let’s talk about world literature. Is there a world literature? The answer is obviously, yes. Is there a world literature that is seen as such? This depends on what languages it has been translated too. Is there a world literature in national languages? We don’t know that. The reason is that very little is translated from most of the national languages to major languages. The dominant imperialist language nowadays is, of course, English. Second to English is Spanish. Though Spanish is not an imperialist language yet once it used to be. That’s why it is spoken in Latin America with the exception of Brazil. Of course it is spoken in Spain itself and increasingly on the west coast of the United States as there are large Hispanic populations. The question that what literature appears in world literary sphere is dependent on how much is translated into the languages of the world. The fact is: not all that much.

Books under globalization and turbo-charged capitalism:

The impact of globalization on world literature has been a compartmentalisation. Globalization has produced a much more provincial culture. There is less understanding about different parts of world today than it was forty years ago prior to globalization. This lack of understanding about rest of the world, affects everything. It, for instance, affects what one reads in the newspapers or watches on television. More space in media was devoted to other parts of the world before unlike last about twenty-five years. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that turbo-charged capitalism has very little time for culture and books. Increasingly, the books published all over the world are taken from the New York Time’s Best-Sellers List. In Europe and South America, where they used to be very proud of their languages, now very often they produce what is on the Best-Sellers List. Their first consideration is: how much from this list can we afford? Their second consideration is: how much money can we make out of it? This is creating, in essence, a cultural deformity and uniformity. This is quite damaging to world literature.   Even in countries like France, where they used to be very proud of their language, from the days of Enlightenment onwards, and considered French an epitome of Enlightenment values, one finds French novelists, writers and academics queuing up outside of English-language publishing houses. This was never the case before. The reason is that they want to be read in imperialist language, in particular, they want to be read in the United States. The thrust of globalization in terms of economics and politics was based upon Washington-consensus after the collapse of communism in Soviet Russia. Now culture is following the same route.


Besides best-sellers-list, we have literature-created-for-Noble-Prize. In this case, Noble Committee decides what novel is beautiful. Say a good novel written by some Ethiopian or Somali writer is brought to Committee’s notice. Their first   question is if the novel has been translated to French as they prefer novels translated to French. If by any chance, the novel has been translated to French, it is considered for Noble Prize. If the author gets the Noble, his or her books become part of world literature and world literary networks. This official world literature, produced by prizes and recognition from a tiny group of people sitting ironically in Scandinavia, and named after the inventor of dynamite, is not a sufficient criteria for us to determine what constitutes great literature. Long before Nobles Prizes, all the questions were raised in a novel that makes a work a universal one. This novel was written in Spain back in 17th century: Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Don Quixote as world’s first global novel:

We know about this novel because it was translated into many languages. It was, for instance, translated to Chinese in 18th century. What is most interesting about this novel is that those of us who don’t know Spanish language and Spanish history, it is not possible for them to understand what this novel is all about. Yet, it is very important novel. There is a beautiful new translation by Edith Grossman. Only spoiler in the book is Harold Bloom. His introduction does not tell anything about the context in which this novel was produced. What we really want to know is the Spanish context in which this novel was written and what this great writer was trying to tell us. He was trying, in fact, to tell us many things. The Spain that Cervantes writes about was the one where three civilisations co-existed for several hundred years and that Spain was destroyed. For many centuries the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian civilisations co-existed and debated in Spain. Out of these debates and discussions grew al-Andalusian culture, poetry and philosophy which were feared in Baghdad as too radical and too questioning. This was an amazing civilisation in many ways. But it was destroyed in two key years. In 1492, the year was marked by expulsion of Jews from Spain. Jews were told to leave or convert. Converts were told if they were caught secretly observing their Jewish rituals, they would be burnt to death. In order to make this happen, a secret police was created called Holy Brotherhood.

In view of Israeli treatment of Palestinians and anger it generates, it is easy to forget now that Muslim and Jewish civilisations co-exited both in Arab world and al-Andalusia as well as Sicily. Muslims were the ruling class and they protected the Jews. There were some attacks on Jews in al-Andalusia but they were very few and Jews were protected by and large. This co-existence created a very rich culture. When this culture was destroyed by Reconquest, both these civilisations were rooted out.

What Jews were told in 1492, Muslims were told 60 years later: leave or convert. Since Muslims used to have ritual baths three-times-a-day, they were forbidden to take bath. Ironically, to take bath became a crime. Public baths were destroyed.

It was this Spain Cervantes was born and grew up.  All the evidence points to the fact that he belonged to a Jewish family of physicians. They converted to save themselves and because they did not want to leave the country. When Cervantes set out to write this novel, he in the early pages, interestingly, says that he did not write the novel. The readers is shocked.  He tells, how:

“One day when I was in the Alcana market in Toledo, a boy came by to sell some notebooks and old papers to a silk merchant; as I am very fond of reading, even torn papers in the streets, I was moved by my natural inclination to pick up one of the volumes the boy was selling, as I saw that it was written in characters I knew to be Arabic. And since I recognize but could not read them, I looked around to see if some Morisco who knew Castilian, and could read them for me, was in the vicinity, and it was not very difficult to find this kind of interpreter, for even if I had sought a speaker of a better and older language, I would have found him.’’

Better and older language was Hebrew.

He is making two points here. Hi is giving a hint where he comes from and that novel was actually written in Arabic. Why he does that? Not for amusement. It is a literary protest that once we had a culture in which Hebrew and Arabic flourished and these languages are no more.

He is also covering himself because of Inquisition. Everything is carefully thought before it is put to paper. In my view, real target of Don Quixote is Catholic Church. He does it in a very special way because were it to be openly admitted, he could be tried for heresy, a blasphemy, and burnt alive.  He is very careful the way he writes. His novel is replete with history. This is what, curiously enough, makes his Don Quixote a world historical novel. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is probably the first piece of world literature which in itself was a synthesis of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures.

Munif’s ‘Cities of Salt’:

The other writers I want to talk about are modern, 20th century writers. One is definitely Arab world’s great novelist Abdelrehman Munif. Some of his work has been translated to English. His trilogy ‘Cities of Salt’ is one of the most devastating, satirical, brilliant depiction of a particular type of Arab rulers. People say he has depicted Saudi rulers. Yes. But what he says about Saudi rulers, is true also about rulers of other Gulf states. In a way, true even about Hosni Mubarak. Munif is not as well known as Naguib Mahfouz who in turn became popular as Noble-laureate. Naguib Mahfouz is also a great writer. Munif, to my mind however, is more edgy, more challenging, more demanding, raises more questions, provides more answers. In ‘Cities of Salt’, he was deprived of his Saudi nationality. But he carried on writing. Last thing he wrote before he died, was a trilogy on Iraq.  Hope it will be translated to English one day. But the way Munif has been written about in Western cannon is quite shocking. Though some German critics have praised him as master writer yet John Updike, who reviewed Munif’s work in New Yorker, actually wrote why did Munif write? Updike thought what Munif wrote was not a novel. May be it was not a novel to satisfy Updike. But what Munif wrote is a great piece of modern Arabic literature. A work of world historical value.

He writes about a rising Arab ruling class following the discovery of oil. He portrays the symbiosis between the foreign oil company and native tribal leaders who had no idea they were sitting on oil. Suddenly, everything changes for those who collaborate with foreign oil company and later a foreign government. The message that permeates the book is: what these rulers would do after oil disappears? Cities will become sand again.

This is a powerful message. Skyscrapers without any meaning will disappear. He questions the rulers: what have you done for your people? Even in Damascus where he lived in exile, Munif was not allowed too much laxity to speak. As he had a sharp tongue. Once, he was supposed to give a lecture. It was not allowed to advertise. The message spread through the word of mouth.   Over 5000 people turned up. His work definitely constitutes part of world literature. But how many more are there writing in Arabic? We don’t know as they have not been translated. You can take the same pattern for continent to continent.

Literature-denied-by Noble:

Throughout the Cold War, Noble Prize was part of it. Every Soviet dissident got it. There were some exceptions though, to be fair. But the character of Noble Prize should also be determined by judging who were denied the Noble Prize. I would point out Indonesian writer, novelist, literary critic and communist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Locked by Suharto dictatorship for several years, kept on Buro islands, suffering from malnutrition, Toer and other political prisoners kept them alive by eating lizards and other little animals. The dictatorship did not have quite the guts to kill them. But wanted them to die a slow death. In prison, Toer began to tell stories to his fellow prisoners to keep their moral high. These stories became basis for his Buru trilogy which he wrote in prison.

And all the while the regime sent in preachers and Islamist journalists to inspect the minds of the inmates and urge them to become Believers:

“I have no doubt that this year, just as in previous years, at the beginning of the fasting month my mates and I will be treated to a lecture by a religious official specially brought in from the free world, on the importance of fasting and controlling one’s hunger and desires. Imagine the humour of that!”

When after the fall of Suharto dictatorship, he returned, he was given a hero’s welcome. But why he was denied a Noble Prize? If anyone deserved, he did. Not because of his politics but quality of his literature. There are those who think literature should be political. I don’t quite agree with that. Political, at least not at the expense of literary. Every novel has to have form, style and content. Toer had it all. In ‘She Who Gave Up’, he wrote:

“Just as politics cannot be separated from life, life cannot be separated from politics. People who consider themselves to be non-political are no different; they’ve already been assimilated by the dominant political culture–they just don’t feel it any more.”

Isn’t it true about every part of the world?

(The text is a redacted-transcription of a talk Tariq Ali gave on December 1, at School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, London.)