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A Review of A River Dies of Thirst by Fady Joudah in The Guardian (UK)

Fady Joudah is moved by a posthumous collection from Mahmoud Darwish.

A River Dies of Thirst was Darwish’s last collection to be published in Arabic, eight months before his death on 9 August 2008. The book’s title in Arabic is The Trace of the Butterfly, but it was changed for the English version to avoid confusion with another translation of Darwish’s earlier works, The Butterfly’s Burden. Its subtitle is [journals] and it is at times a chaotic combination of journal entries, prose poems, poetic fragments, broken ideas, brilliant meditations and fully worked poems. Darwish deliberately blurs boundaries between prosody and prose, formalism and free verse. As a formalist, he continually renewed Arabic prosody, but always struggled with “free verse” or “prose poetry”; questioning how to write it and the ways in which it is not necessarily “free”. In the last entry of the book, after Darwish’s final return to Haifa in 2007, he writes: “All prose here is primitive poetry lacking a skilled craftsman, and all poetry here is prose accessible to passers-by.”

This paradox marks the significance of these diaries. They are the late works of a master aware of his timelessness as he engages in one last act of abandon. “There is no I but I,” the narcissus proclaims in “Point of View”, while the sunflower replies “I am only what I worship.”

This is a work which echoes Theodore Adorno’s comments on Beethoven’s late style: “Touched by death, the hand of the master liberates the mass of material that it previously shaped” (Darwish is aware of his mortality to the extent of intuiting correctly the day of the week his death will occur: “I believed I’d died on Saturday”).

For Darwish extreme individuation dissolves into its otherness. His long journey into the self, with the stranger, the humanised enemy, and the collective “we”, is a Sufi’s “I”, metaphysical and existential, simultaneously interior and exterior.

The book begins with a series of pieces addressing the suffering in Gaza, West Bank and Lebanon in the summer of 2006, with a mixture of satire and gravity: “heroism too has its sell-by date” and “the house as casualty is also mass murder”. When Darwish asks himself about hope he “construct[s] a mirage” and goes on searching “in his desk drawers for the person he was before asking this question”. “Hope is not the opposite of despair,” he writes. “It is a talent.” And “suffering is not a talent” but a test of it. And indifference is “one aspect of hope”.

Throughout the book Darwish delights in prose narratives or poem fragments that came to him between sleep and wakefulness, dream and imagination. These diaries are also writings about writing, and we stroll gently with him on his private walks, where his imagination becomes one of his other selves, “a faithful hunting dog”, as young girls throw pistachios at him and call him “uncle”. While “he sees himself as absent . . . to lighten the burden of the place,” he observes his surroundings with a revelatory clarity: clouds are a silk shawl caught in the branches of a tree, or like soap bubbles in the kitchen sink that dissolve into forgotten words. A “rustling” is “a feeling searching for someone to feel it”. And “jasmine is a message of longing from nobody to nobody.”

A River Dies of Thirst lures its translator’s imagination into several possibilities of form and lyric as testament to the mastery Darwish possessed in Arabic. Catherine Cobham’s translations sway delicately between mystery and clarity, giving a rendition of the master’s voice that should impress both those reading Darwish’s work for the first time and those who are already familiar with it.

• Fady Joudah’s new translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, If I Were Another, will be published later this year

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