Literary Notes: Of magical realism, political critique and translations in Urdu
MAGIC and realism carry two apparently contradicting connotations. But a literary technique that caught the fancy of readers and critics alike in the third and fourth decades of the 20th century was called magical realism. Some Latin American fiction writers have used this technique wonderfully in last few decades, too.
Alternatively called marvellous realism and magic realism, magical realism is a technique that allows a writer to intermingle reality with magical and supernatural elements to create images reflecting on the real world. Juxtaposing reality with the imaginary and dream-like situations, writers get their political views across subtly and with dazzling effects.
According to J.A. Cuddon, it was Franz Roh (1890-1965), a German art critic, who first used the term magic realism in 1925 to discern some tendencies in the works of certain German painters. These painters used some outlandish images and fantastic figures in their artistic works. Soon the term was associated with some works of fiction as well and it was accepted as a name for a specific form, some say genre, of fiction. Argentine poet and fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is often regarded as the pioneer of magic realism in fiction as a 1935 novel of his is considered the first such literary work.
As some critics have put it, the catastrophic social, political and economic breakdown in certain Latin American countries resulted in chaos and total lawlessness. This paved the way for dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, which in turn imposed censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression to conceal their shortcomings. Looking at the stark difference between the promised good governance and harsh ground realities, writers drew parallels between dream and reality. This somehow invoked magic realism in South and Latin American literary circles, with writers recording political critique through magical and hard-to-believe fiction.
The reality was so harsh that it was presented under the garb of surrealistic settings, thereby implicitly criticising the ruling class, which was either military junta or dictatorial regimes. Columbian fiction writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) is also a distinguished practitioner of magic realism, mirroring Columbia’s horrific political crisis that claimed tens of thousands of lives in the 1940s and 1950s.
It is heartening to note that world literature is being continually translated into Urdu, enriching Urdu literature all the more. Though our translators have rendered into Urdu from different languages numerous works ranging from philosophy to religion and from science to history, it is fiction and poetry that have enticed our translators more. Luckily, Latin and South American literature too has struck a chord with our translators and readers. So, one of the recent trends in Urdu is to translate South American and Latin American writers who have made their mark. Borges is indeed one of them. Recently some selected short stories by Borges have been translated into Urdu.
Titled Borkhes kahaniyan and rendered into Urdu by Mohammad Aasim Butt, the book’s subtitle claims to be the selection of Borges’ “best short stories”. Butt is a veteran fiction writer, journalist and translator and he has indeed translated some of the best short stories by Borges in his usual commendable way, though the use of the term ‘best’ remains debatable as it is a subjective matter. Published by Lahore’s Sang-e-Meel Publications, the book carries an intro by the translator, describing life and works of Borges, albeit without any references or acknowledgement of the sources to this useful intro. Also, proper names mentioned in the intro are given only in Urdu script and their equivalents in Roman script are missing altogether, leaving the readers guessing about their actual spellings and pronunciations. But these translations deserve kudos.
Another Urdu translation of some of the world’s well-known writers is published by National Book Foundation. Named Mashriq-o-maghrib ki kahaniyan, these short stories were translated into Urdu by Mumtaz Shireen (1924-1973), a celebrated Urdu fiction writer and critic, decades ago. Published in literary magazines, especially in Naya daur, she had translated these short stories from English, except for the one piece that she translated directly from French. Prof Dr Tanzeem-ul-Firdous has collected and compiled these translations. A detailed intro by Dr Firdous elaborates Mumtaz Shireen’s life and her other works.
Dr Firdous, who heads Karachi University’s Urdu department, has already penned two books on Mumtaz Shireen. In her intro she has shed some light on the background of these translations that include big Western names such as Mikhail Sholokhov, Gerd Gaiser, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Wolfdietrich Schnurre, Knut Hamsun and Louis Gallo.
On the other hand, Mumtaz Shireen had translated some stories from Eastern literatures too. These include stories from Bengali, Marathi and Kannada literatures. She translated some of Kannada stories into Urdu directly as Shireen belonged to South India, while Marathi and Bengali stories were translated from English. Dr Firdous has, of course, done a good job and her critical review of these translations in her intro too is worth reading. She has been careful enough to mention the sources to her intro and give the foreign names in Roman script as well.