I enjoyed the June event in the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Series so much that I wanted to make sure I went along to this month’s, whatever the subject. It was another interesting event, though it may be that I lack some of the context to write it up properly. Here goes, anyway…
Abdelfattah Kilito is a Moroccan writer and critic; he was interviewed at the LRB shop by Marina Warner, mostly about his own fiction and one of his key scholarly interests, the Thousand and One Nights. Warner commented at one point that Kilito’s work often blurs the line between fiction, essay and memoir (which Kilito put down to his admiration of Borges); there was a similar blurring going on in this interview.
Kilito told of how, as a child, he could not afford to buy books; instead, at the age of 12, he joined an American library in his home city of Rabat. Most of the books were in English, but there was one stack of books in French – and so the young Kilito was set. The power of books and stories became a recurring theme of Kilito’s talk: he remarked that Scheherazade’s telling of stories saved a human community, because it stopped the King from killing women. In the end, the King demanded that Scheherazade’s stories be recorded by his scribes, even though he could have just taken the books from her library – there, Kilito suggested, was an early expression of the value of publishing.
Kilito said that he was fixated with the idea of people ‘carrying’ particular stories with them: anyone who tells a story discharges it to the listener – and they may go on to transmit it to someone else. He mentioned a story of souls in the underworld reading the books of their own lives; eventually the souls grew bored, and started swapping their books and reading each other’s – but then they forgot their own book, and were unable to find it again.
During the audience questions, Kilito suggested a difference between Arab intellectuals of the past and present: in the past, Arab intellectuals would translate works from other cultures a great deal, but were less concerned with having their own books translated. Now, Kilito said, Arab intellectuals may well want to be recognised in America and Europe – it can even be the case that they may not receive full attention in their home countries until they have that recognition elsewhere. But efforts to translate more go on, in all directions; stories continue to be carried and transmitted.
This was the last event in the 2012-13 World Literature Series; I’m only disappointed that I didn’t discover them sooner. I asked on Twitter if there’d be another Series, and received this reply:
@David_Heb Well… let’s just say there are several things lined up – watch this space!
— LRB Bookshop (@LRBbookshop) July 12, 2013
Oh, I will.