Touch by Adania Shibli (trans. by Paula Haydar). Clockroot Books. 72pp. $13.00.
Adania Shibli’s American debut is a visually striking composition of interconnected prose poem-like vignettes that follow a young girl living on the West Bank of Palestine. The novella’s short numbered sections, which comprise the larger chapters of the book (“colors,” “silence,” “movement,” “language,” and “the wall”), house intimate scenes imprinted with the events that lay just outside the girl’s immediate perspective—from the death of her brother to the violent political context. These surrounding events are so delicately incorporated into the girl’s perceptual realm that scenes often feel as if they were ekphrastically derived from a photograph or painting. Shibli achieves this cohesion through the book’s polished and fluid prose; sensory details are foregrounded over the trajectory of narrative sense-making, and the circumstantial themes of the text (family life, love, death, political strife) unfold the way a narrative might enter into one’s experience of a painting—their impacts permeate throughout the text, but rarely are they explicitly depicted or referenced.
I was continually struck while reading Touch by the ways in which scenes and images are constructed with an exceptionally “painterly” quality, focusing in elemental ways on the color, form, and perspective of the girl’s surroundings. Shibli’s prose (through the lens of Paula Haydar’s skillful translation of the original Arabic) is polished and subtle, as in this characteristic quality of description: “No matter how black the courtyard was, the shaded area would always be blacker.” The writing in this novella not only elegantly represents static visual elements, but also the ways in which the girl’s own experience is infused with these elements, as when she describes her classroom:
Calm lingered in the classroom, joined by the cold that came in through the door. The cold caused bodies to move involuntarily, and a few moments later so did a chair, then a desk and a mouth and so on.
In some of the most arresting moments of the book, an image seems to surpass its source, resulting in an encounter with an estranged picture of a familiar action: “Laughter kept the knife shaking in the air for a long time.” Throughout the book, the visual elements both familiarize the reader with the landscape in which the girl lives and accentuate its ephemeral oddities. Often, in this way, Shibli’s images contain a sparse poignancy wherein colors (and therefore observation) have an unusual amount of agency in determining the action of the scene:
Sometimes colors disappeared from nature, and all that remained was green on the mountain, yellow on the hay, and blue on the sky in summer. Before the end of the spring, the green and red crayons got used up because there were so many anemones, yet it seemed the pink crayon would last through many winters.
When the vast familial and national tragedies that surround the girl’s frame of reference appear in the text, they almost always do so through this mode of sensuous description, and not as narrative reportage. That is, the affects of these surrounding circumstances are cast as a patina that marks the external, physical world as much as it does the girl’s interior one. Shortly after her brother’s death, “the sky had not changed its silence or its shape or its position after the brother’s soul rose up to it.” This comes as a startling observation when earlier in the book the movement of people is often intimately tied to the way in which the eye discovers and assembles the landscape:
The girl stood at the end of the schoolyard, looking down at part of a sabr plant the size of a donkey, which was blocked from view by a donkey standing in front of her. She stood there waiting for the donkey to go so she could store the missing part of the plant in her memory.
Here, a visual logic plays itself out through form and memory, dissecting the ways in which objects in a field are compiled in our minds as we apprehend their arrangements. In contrast, a small number of lines reach beyond a visual effect to something like a prophetic declaration: “The wait was over when revenge opened up onto the entire scene, with a secret movement.” And while this latter kind of declaration might not seem at all out of place in many works of fiction, in this particular text—which shares more formal qualities with the prose poem than with the modern novel—these moments are stirringly visceral even in their abstraction.
The girl’s attempt to apprehend unknown language and negotiate the divide between word as sign and word as signifier becomes one of the ways in which we are shown her attempt to understand the political and ideological voices that enter her world. One of the most explicit examples of this confusion surrounding names happens when she overhears news of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila:
The girl tried to understand the meaning of the words Sabra and Shatila. Maybe they were one word. The word Palestine was unclear, expect that it was forbidden. The color of the green board resembled that color of cactus.
At other times, the issue of linguistic identification is rendered too explicitly: “The little girl sat in front of the door, her throat filled with the loss of language mixed with the loss of being included in the pronoun you.” In this section, and in a few others in the book, the crisp texture of description is broken by a sudden shift in register, one that too clearly belongs to an older authorial voice hovering over the text. But these disruptions in register are far and few between. Touch is written from a sensitively balanced middle ground wherein both overused and often flat extremes are avoided: the false artifice of an attempted hyper-realism (the attempt to write literally from a young girl’s perspective) and that of an adult looking back with heavy-handed retrospection. This middle ground allows phenomenological knowledge to come both simply and with powerful insight:
The eighth sister moved to the door and stood beside it, too. Then she leaned against it, turning her head from side to side and staring at the girl. Time passed between the eyes. A blink could come at an unknown moment.
The fluidity with which this balance is maintained in English is due in no small part to the success of Paula Haydar’s translation—a difficult endeavor when working from such a precise and minimalistic original text. It is certainly to her credit that Touch feels powerfully elemental and accurate in translation, and that the result gracefully depicts political and personal tragedy as it seeps into the young girl’s everyday sense of the world and her place within it.
Andrew Nance is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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