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Islamic Porn, Fake Diamonds And Racist Literature

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When the novelist Jose Manuel Prieto left Cuba to spend a decade in Siberia, he could only fit a few books in his suitcase, so he packed several volumes (not all) of "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu" by Marcel Proust. When winter closed in, Proust was more or less all Prieto had, and he read with a concentration "bordering on obsession."

So when, in preparation for Tuesday's panel, Prieto was asked to identify a favorite classic work, he immediately thought of Proust. He highlighted an excerpt from a minor Proust novel about diamond forgery, which his interpreter then read in English. Meanwhile, further down the dais, another interpreter whispered a simultaneous translation to the Syrian-French writer Salwa Al Neimi.

Thus was Proust translated from French into Spanish, then into English, and back into the original French, by way of Syria and Siberia. (With so many far-flung luminaries struggling to be understood, it was as if the UN had convened a Special Commission on Synecdoche.)

This week, New Yorkers will witness hundreds of such cross-cultural exchanges, thanks to the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

International PEN, founded in 1921, bills itself as the oldest human rights organization in the world. PEN American Center, the largest of the 141 international branches, was founded just a year later. The organization "works to advance literature, to defend free expression, and to foster international literary fellowship." They give out book prizes, circulate petitions on behalf of political prisoners, and, when that gets too heavy, they host readings and concerts and panels--including the holiest week of word worship, the World Voices Festival.

The festival, now in its fifth year, invites 160 writers from 41 countries to hold forth on all things politico-literary, from Kafka to children's books. Want to see Lou Reed share the stage with Parker Posey? Want to see Paul Krugman school George Soros about the recession? Want to see Rick Moody and Mark Z. Danielewski sulk together? PEN has got you covered.

Tuesday's panel, "Writers on the Great Works," asked four authors to explain how a particular work had influenced them. Prieto picked Proust. New Yorker staff writer George Packer read from Heart of Darkness, a book he continued to love even after Chinua Achebe "made the simple and irrefutable point that the book was racist." The French philosopher Muriel Barbery, author of the bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, chose a chapter from The Book of Tea, a century-old Japanese book written in English.

Salwa Al Neimi, the Syrian-born writer of literary erotica, selected a passage from The Perfumed Garden. Al Neimi claimed that this classic Arabic text on coition, written in the fifteenth century by a Tunisian sheik, was "the softest" one she could find; nevertheless, it was explicit enough to make the Song of Songs look like The Neverending Story. (I hope Arabic has a pretty word for "vulva," because whatever it is, the sheik used it incessantly. He also waxed lecherous about ladies with "round bellies" and "double chins.")

During the golden age of Arabic culture, Al Neimi reminded us, erotic handbooks were a mainstream literary genre, edited by religious scholars. With the advent of Islamic fundamentalism came the notion that Arabic was a sacred language and should not be used to describe sex. Al Neimi's decision to write in Arabic was a political one; by doing so, she hoped to demonstrate "the range and freedom of the Arabic language." Not a small ambition for a novel about a randy librarian.

"Did you have any problems," an audience member asked Al Neimi during the Q&A, "given the explicit nature of your material?"

"Not really--except that the book has been banned in most Arab countries." She waited for her joke to be translated, and after the chuckles died down, she went on: "But honestly, I don't see it as a problem. In today's society, with the internet and all, a book can never really be banned."

Andrew Marantz is a writer living in Brooklyn. He blogs sporadically at culturemedium.wordpress.com.

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