Thursday, November 13, 2008

Choosing the other tongue

This week the glossy and glazed cherry on top of the French literary cake, the Prix Goncourt, was given to an Afghan refugee, Atiq Rahimi, for the very first novel that he wrote in his adopted language. Syngué Sabour - Pierre de patience obviously represents a turning point for Rahimi, who previously published three acclaimed novels in his Afghan mother tongue.

Two years ago the same prestigious prize was won by the American Jonathan Littell for his first French novel, Les Bienveillantes, a hefty 1403-page brick of a book, nearly twenty years after he had published a youthful science-fiction novel in English. Littell's previous application for French citizenship was turned down, but within a few months of walking off with the Goncourt, he was officially and proudly declared French . The inevitable conclusion is that if you want the French to welcome you with open arms, all you have to do is win the most important literary prize in the country...

On a more serious note, Rahimi and Littell are shining examples of a rare but seemingly increasing breed of writers who opt for 'choosing the other tongue'. This was the title of an illuminating panel discussion in which I took part at the Iowa International Writers' Program a decade ago. All the speakers, myself included, came from erstwhile British colonies in Africa and Asia. Most chose the language of the former coloniser, rather than their mother tongue, for their writing. My own sin was worse. I wrote mainly in my mother tongue, Afrikaans, which had been widely regarded as the language of the oppressor during the Apartheid years.

My main defence was that it wasn't really a 'choice'. Sometimes I write in English, with my head (journalism, essays, the 'truth'), sometimes in Afrikaans, with my guts (fiction, novels, 'stories'). Language is subject to the needs of what has to be written.

By now it has become clear to me that some writers can actually choose one language above another. International French above a 'small' language like Afghan, for obvious reasons, in Rahimi's case. Or international French above the even more international English, for personal reasons, in Littell's case. The most famous case is probably Vladimir Nabokov, who published no less than nine novels in Russian before becoming an astonishingly accomplished prose stylist in English, with classic novels like Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor. For Nabokov, as for Milan Kundera (yet another who chose French, after previously publishing in Czech) and most other tongue-changing authors of international fame I can think of, this was a true transformation. A full stop rather than a hyphen. Their writing left the safe shore of the mother language to sink or swim in another language.

The Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett, on the other hand, came and went between shore and sea, between goodbye and au revoir, between English and French. An Irishman who started out publishing novels in English (the 'oppressor', surely, for the Irish), then switched over to French when he needed a new kind of language for his ground-breaking plays like Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Subsequently Beckett wrote some of his plays in French and others in English, the language apparently dictated by each particular work.

All of the above writers, consciously or not, followed James Joyce's renowned advice on what a writer needs: silence, exile, cunning. Littell strikes me as taking the concept of artistic exile to its multi-national, globalised, 21st-century extreme - an American who writes in French, lives in Spain, and is married to a Belgian woman!

The point is that most people on earth cannot write a great novel, play or poem, even in their primary language. To be able to do this in a second language, sometimes acquired much later in life, is a staggering achievement. (Joseph Conrad learnt English, his third language, after Polish and French, when he was already in his twenties - and went on to produce masterpieces such as Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim in this foreign language.) So let's all applaud Atiq Rahimi for conquering the Goncourt this week - and let's hope the English translation won't take too long.

Because many of us who are not as linguistically talented as these authors are still waiting for the English version of Jonathan Littell's 2006 prizewinner, The Kindly Ones, due out next year. I, for instance, do read French novels - but when it comes to 1403-page tomes heavy enough to use for stoning someone, I'd rather be 'a stone of patience', to quote from Rahimi's title, and wait for the translation...