Of Bin Laden, Empathy, and Translation
As a U.S. citizen, I have had one reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden. However, as a student of literature, I have found little to say about this symbolic victory in the “War on Terror” except, perhaps, that it is extremely distracting from the research papers I should be writing during Reading, Review, Recitation week here at Berkeley. During just such a moment of distraction, I stumbled upon this piece by Ruth Franklin, writing for the New Republic, about the possibilities or impossibilities of understanding terrorism and, more specifically, Islamist extremism through the American novel. She asserts, with startling boldness, that the novel is the space for empathy, an empathy that would both be the basis for our understanding of the terrorist, and one that fundamentally distinguishes our culture and beliefs from theirs:
Empathy is not what we expect from jihadists, but it is what we look for in our novelists. Unfortunately, only a handful of American novelists have even made an attempt to write about terrorists close-up. And their efforts have largely suffered from precisely the sort of failure of imagination for which Obama criticized jihadists, offering remarkably little insight into the sources of the madness.
Franklin then goes on to detail the several, sometimes farcical, attempts by U.S. novelists to sketch a portrait of the terrorist from the inside-out, including this marvelous snippet from the late John Updike, admitting that “he even consulted a book called The Koran for Dummies.” She concludes, then, that there must be something about the novel’s work that requires a natural if not native relationship with a culture:
But logic tells us that it might well be impossible to write a truly great realist novel about a culture of which one knows little, because realist fiction requires an amount of precision that can be gained only through comprehensive contact. Could Dostoevsky have written Crime and Punishment about a student in Helsinki rather than St. Petersburg? What if Flaubert had made Madame Bovary a country wife in Appalachia? No amount of research and preparation can equal total immersion in a world.
This need for totality as a precondition to the discourse of the novel leads Franklin, quite naturally, to the domain of literature in translation, directing us to Arab and Afghan writers showcased in recent anthologies. Yet, there is something unsettling in the assumption that we can read authors in translation for their insights into a world that — presumably — produces terrorism. After all, are the authors writing for us so that we may understand and speak to their countrymen, or, rather, for their linguistic and cultural brethren? By trying to use literature in translation as a tool to empathize, are we not always going to read them wrong? These are questions with which I am currently struggling in my research as I study the conviction, shared among many authors at the cusp of Europe’s colonial enterprises, that translated fiction was indeed a means to knowing… one’s enemy?
This paradox for those of us who believe in the power of the novel is distilled in the recent lament of Turkish Nobel-Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. While Pamuk complains “that the majority of human experience is being ignored because the literature that describes it is not written in English”, he also protests, “When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can’t love be general?” While I can conceive of an author having a Turkish identity, it is harder to conceptualize a “general identity.” Besides, if we want to know about love in general, wouldn’t we go to the movies? Franklin seems to suggest — and I can’t say if I agree with her — that we read precisely to learn about other people’s love, that is, to empathize.