Writers' Corner

Robert Bononno*

2002 Prose

Translator's Statement

Twenty years ago - it must have been 1982 or '83 - a friend handed me a copy of The Oblivion Seekers, a slender volume of translations by Paul Bowles that was published in 1970 by City Lights Books. The author was Isabelle Eberhardt, a writer unknown to me at the time. There is an introduction by Bowles in which he provides a rough sketch of her life; the materials are drawn primarily from the writings of her contemporaries and a biography by Cecily Mackworth. The texts themselves were taken from volumes compiled shortly after Eberhardt's death by her friend and editor, Victor Barrucand.

There is a photograph of Eberhardt on the back cover of the book. In it - she was 18 at the time - she is dressed in what appears to be a Turkish costume, a fez perched at a rakish angle on her head, a string of wooden prayer beads in her left hand. A long white shawl drapes down her left side and wraps around her shoulders. She has the high cheekbones and upturned nose of a Kalmuk. Her eyes are dark, expressive, her mouth sensual and serious. She is attractive, but there is nothing particularly feminine about the photograph, and she could be a boyãalthough one with fine features and delicate, aristocratic hands. The need for travesty or disguise, and the creation of different personas was a hallmark of Eberhardt's life and a fertile topic for her biographers. It would have been hard not to have been captivated by this strange young woman, who lived her life on the margins of European society - thumbing her nose at convention, propriety, and good taste.

Eberhardt's writing is direct, fresh, deeply felt, rich with imagery, sometimes na´ve, starkly realistic. Its exoticism, aside from the locale, is the product of a life lived outside the hidebound rules of nineteenth-century European civilization. Although Eberhardt speaks often of the "Orient" of legend, which had so captivated her contemporaries, she was well acquainted with the realities of North African, primarily Algerian, culture. Unlike the perfumed gardens and reclining odalisques dreamt of by voluptuaries like Flaubert, Loti, and Fromentin, who were in search of stronger pleasures than Europe had to offer, hers is a world of hardship, privation, physical endurance, and sensual abandonment. Eberhardt was an artist and a rebel, eschewed the conventions of bourgeois society (French, Swiss, and Russian), despised city life, sympathized with the Algerian people's plight at the height of French colonialism, dressed as a man, drank to excess, smoked kif, and was an outstanding equestrian. She spoke Arabic, studied Islam, became a Muslim, married a native spahi, and was initiated into the religious confraternity of the Qadiriya. The French expelled her from Algeria after a "madman" from a rival sect attempted to assassinate her. She died in 1904, in a sudden flash flood in the desert town of A´n Sefra, near the Moroccan border. She was twenty-seven at the time. Three films and several plays about her life have been produced. Yet her work is largely unknown in English.

Eberhardt's writing has languished, virtually unknown for nearly a century, in the oblivion of ignorance. She remained (and remains) largely a cult writer, known from a handful of English biographies and Bowles's translation. In 1987 Actes Sud, a French publisher, released an anthology of her writings. The book was edited by Eglal Errera, an Egyptian writer trained as an anthropologist. What distinguishes Errera's compilation from earlier collections is her use of the corrected text of Eberhardt's writings, including her diaries, based on the original manuscripts. Previous editions of Eberhardt's work, especially those published in the years after her death, were heavily edited by Barrucand, who though it prudent to excise passages critical of the French government's colonial policies as well as anything that might shock the sensibilities of his readers. In some cases he amended or simply rewrote parts of the text. Errera, working from the manuscripts retrieved from Eberhardt's home after her death by General Louis Lyautey, and which are now part of the Isabelle Eberhardt collection of the Archives d'outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, presents the work - letters, diaries, journalism, stories - in chronological order, providing a much needed sense of immediacy and continuity. A two-volume edition of Eberhardt's complete writings was published in France a year later, edited by Marie-OdileDelacour and Jean-René Huleu.

With this grant I will finish a project begun nearly 14 years ago. Over the years, I have had selections from my translation published in literary magazines, and many publishers have shown interest in the work, but none was willing to risk publishing it. I am indebted to the NEA and its hard-working jurors for providing me with the opportunity to complete what I had begun so long ago. In many ways this has been the most difficult project I have worked on, not because of the inherent difficulty of the text but because of my personal investment in trying to bring it to life and the many failures and disappointments that has entailed. While the grant is no guarantee of publication, it is a validation of my belief in the importance of Isabelle Eberhardt the writer. The years of effort and frustration remain, of course, but they have not been in vain.

Sept Annees Dans La Vie d'Une Femme: Isabelle Eberhardt, Lettres et Journaliers (Seven Years in the Life of a Woman: Isabelle Eberhardt, Letters and Journals)
translated by Robert Bononno

The following comes from the writings of Isabelle Eberhardt during her travels with the French Foreign Legion.

AN AUTUMN IN THE TUNISIAN SAHEL

The Tunisian Sahel [1899]

I had just gone through one of those moral crises that deaden the soul, leaving it withdrawn and incapable of pleasure for long periods of time ãsensible only to pain. Yet, among all my travels, my trip to the Tunisian Sahel was perhaps the most untroubled. I had left Tunis in that state of great anticipation common to all departures. But I was hardly settled in the train to Sousse when I experienced an odd sensation of sudden calm.

The train makes its way slowly, lazily, stopping at every little village, in pretty stations alive with vegetation. Maxula-Rhades, not far from the city, was the first, with its white cottages along the wave-beaten shore and, off to the northeast, the still mirror of the shining lake. Then, Hamman-el-Lif, the luxurious vacation spot for wealthy Muslims. Farther on, as the train leaves the coast behind, the tracks become part of the countryside.

With joy I rediscover the familiar aspects of the Bedouin landscape: reddish hills, fields that the Arab reapers have left gilt with straw, gray pastureland dotted with nomad shepherds and their flocks. . . Here and there the strange, motionless silhouette of a camel. . . From time to time, while crossing a little iron bridge, we come upon some unknown river bed, dried by the summer heat and overrun with oleander bushes in full flower.

But after Bir-bou-Rekba, the train again comes within sight of the violet sea high above us, calm beneath the implacable midday sky. On either side are green fields and small groves of olive trees, stripped of their shroud of summer dust by the first autumn rains. The lower edge of the coastline defines itself in large, graceful curves and a jagged series of soft-green headlands against the lilac-blue of the motionless gulf of Hammamet. Here and there, from the depths of a cove or the summit of a headland, the reflection of a small milk-white fishing village shimmers in the deep water.

The tranquil surface of an ageless and nearly featureless landscape. It would be difficult to know where we are if, at each turn, we didn't catch sight of the Bedouins, motionless on their thin, rough-coated horses, rolled in the heavy pleats of their sefseris, which are worn by the Tunisians in place of the Algerian burnous. . . Dry, sunburned faces, often beardless, with very pronounced Berber features. . . Impassive faces, most of them quite severe.

After Bou-Ficha, we enter the immense olive groves that cover the Tunisian shore.

In the hot and silent night, an aromatic odor begins to rise from the sleeping landscape near Menzel-Dar-bel-Ouar, then turns heavy and nauseating - we are approaching the numerous oil presses around Sousse.

I traveled not knowing anyone, without a goal, without haste, and certainly without any fixed itinerary. . . My soul was calm, filled with the pleasant expectation of arrival in a new place.