One of the cool things about the Best Translated Book Award is that it brings my (and others’) attention to books like Leg over Leg. You can certainly gripe about the way awards work, things that get left off the longlist, etc, etc, but I’m fairly certain that people are reading this book because of the BTBA (I know I am, and I doubt I would have been reading it otherwise).
In case you’re wondering, this is a bilingual Arabic/English book printed in four volumes by an academic press. Oh, and it was originally published in 1955. That’s a damn hard sell, even for people who care about this stuff.
And that’s one of the reasons I’m glad the BTBA exists–it get people to look at books like this one, which, by the way, is a truly remarkable book that belongs in the conversation with things like Tristram Shandy. I only wish NYU Press would do an affordable paperback edition. At $40 per volume for 4 volumes, very few people outside of academic institutions are going to buy the whole thing . . .
Before I read Leg Over Leg I would have suspected any nineteenth-century work of Arabic fiction to be…well, let’s be honest: kind of conservative and stale. But Leg Over Leg turns out to probably be the most exuberant and formally inventive text on the entire BTBA longlist.
Leg Over Leg is an autobiographical novel, centered on the life of the author’s alter ego, ‘the Fāriyāq’. An eighty-chapter work, it is divided into four books – and it is the first of these that is BTBA-longlisted; Leg Over Leg is, remarkably, one of four multi-volume works of which an individual volume has been longlisted this year (the others being the books by Cărtărescu, Ferrante, and Knausgaard). Even though volumes three and four of Leg Over Leg will only be published later this year, the first volume stands up superbly on its own. While the young Fāriyāq’s life-story is the framework for the narrative, al-Shidyaq feels entirely comfortable taking it completely off the rails at times, too. There are stories within the stories here, and metafictional games. Above all, the text engages with language, in everything from its use of rhyme and poetry to dictionary-like lists and glossaries. Throughout, al-Shidyaq revels in the possibilities of language and expression. And ‘ribald’ doesn’t do justice to the extensive sexual-(word)play found here (yes, Leg Over Leg is definitely not conservative).
The BTBA is a translation prize, and so we naturally focus on the quality of the translation, too. And here we have yet another reason why Leg Over Leg should win: Humphrey Davies’ translation is a stunner. No doubt, one reason why Leg Over Leg hasn’t been translated previously is because it can seem untranslatable. There is a lot of wordplay here, from the use of rhymes within passages to what amount to lists of word-definitions – and even beyond that, the multifaceted text is daunting. Every text brings with it translation-challenges, but few of the longlisted titles presented anywhere near as many as this one does – and yet Davies handled them exceptionally well. The reader gets a sense of much of what al-Shidyaq is trying to do, and especially what he is trying to say and demonstrate about language; equally importantly, the humor – and there’s a lot of it – comes across: in English, too, Leg Over Leg is a very funny book.