BEIRUT: Polish writer Stanislaw Strasburger has dug deep into the literary heritage of the Arab world, with the aim of exploring its contemporary society and confronting Western “clichés” about the East.
“The Story Teller,” Strasburger’s debut novel, is the first Polish fiction work to be translated into Arabic in over half a century. The novel tells the story of Yan, a Polish geophysicist who goes to Syria for his work but becomes so fascinated by the place that he quits his job and tries to engage more closely with the society’s culture.
Strasburger describes his novel as a love triangle that explores traditional Arabic literature. “The plot is simple,” he told The Daily Star. “The theme is a little more about questioning whether [different cultures] can understand each other through literature.”
The German-based novelist says he became curious about Eastern society after visiting Tunisia as a high school student. He was accompanying a friend who’d won a trip to the Arab country in a Polish newspaper competition.
“Through meeting people there and seeing the heritage, the old architecture, the calligraphy,” he said, “there was something that attracted me and I felt I would like to go more and understand what is behind all this.”
Strasburger visited Lebanon and Syria for the first time in 1999, on a work assignment.
“My job is in the cultural field and there are two strings,” he said. “One is the writing string and the other is the educational and culture-management string, which includes educational projects, workshops, school books, etc.”
Strasburger’s first experience with Lebanon was a visit to the northern city of Tripoli, but he said he was later inspired by the “dynamic and vibrant” capital.
“It was a mixed impression,” he recalled. “On one hand, I could feel a great energy, which I can still feel until now. At the same time, the city is really demanding in terms of electricity and stuff ... I am trying to live the [normal] Lebanese life, experiencing it all – electricity cuts, public transport.
“My aim was not to live the artificial life of a foreign artist. I did not want to live in a bubble.”
Strasburger said it was challenging to maintain his focus on culture and literature.
“Everyone is talking about the war, terrorism, politics,” he said. “I wanted to point out there is something else in the Middle East but, you know, your friends eventually ask about your stance on regional politics so I investigated collective memory and political history and tried to conduct sociopolitical studies at an analytical level.”
The author said his experiences leading an average life in Beirut had also provoked personal growth.
“The experience made me see myself and my community in a totally different way,” he said. “Many of the stereotypes and clichés are not really conscious.”
“The Story Teller” was well received when first published in 2009, yet the Polish market lacks “emigrant literature and a multicultural approach to art,” he said.
“It is not easy to get poets like Abu Alaa Maari and Ibn al-Arabi and try to integrate them in the contemporary times,” he said. “This is very fresh to Poland. I was happy to make it but it is a pioneer work.”
The Arabic-language fiction market is not huge, so Strasburger’s desire to have his novel translated into Arabic made little commercial sense but, he said, “it was kind of a personal issue” for him.
“I think it is just a shallow smartness,” he continued. “It’s like a common talk. Everyone is saying the same thing. Before people were reading more, etc.
“For me, it is about what I am doing. It was important to keep being in contact and in exchange with Arab readers ... I wanted them to think that I am kind of triggering them, we may not share the same visions but this can trigger an important debate.”
“The Story Teller” is an urban novel. Set in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, it includes descriptions of narrow streets and old souks in the cities of these countries, among other settings.
“Urbanism is also a sign of differences [between] cultures,” he said. “You have, for example, a description of the empty spaces in a mosque, while in a church you have different positions and settings. You can be more [near] the altar or vice versa.”
Yan, Strasburger’s protagonist, finds himself having to choose between two women. One is Lebanese, from Tripoli, with Palestinian roots. The other is an Eritrean from Asmara, studying in Syria.
Love itself is not the novel’s central theme, however. The relations serve to reveal “how emotions are being expressed between people of different cultures, and if communication at this level is possible.”
Yan finds himself in several awkward situations, such as when the mother of his Lebanese girlfriend takes them out to dinner and insists on paying the bill. The simple gesture leaves Yan confused. “Why did she do that?” he wonders. “Was this an act of kindness? Did the girl want him to get a foreign passport?”
At one point, the reader finds Yan at the seashore, trying to fix a plastic chair in order to keep it stable. The author calls this a metaphor for “fitting in” in other societies.
“But, you know, maybe you don’t need to fit in,” he said. “Maybe no one fits in.”
Strasburger said he was also trying to explore migration from a new generation’s perspective.
“I am talking about people who don’t migrate for political reasons,” he said, “but ... because they believe they have chances for better lives somewhere else. They are not escaping, because they have a choice.”
The characters’ relationships do not end happily. Asked if this was a remark upon the impossibility of overcoming the cultural barriers between East and West, the author replied, “I hope not. It is difficult somehow, yes but, I don’t think humans are so simple that you can provide a simple answer.
“What I am more interested in,” he added, “is to show different scenarios, mind settings.”
This question of the differences between East and West is highlighted by a surreal scene in which Yan imagines a poetry competition between Abbasid poet Abu Alaa Maari, author of “The Letter of Forgiveness,” and Italian poet Dante, whose most famous work is “The Divine Comedy.”
Both poets read what authorities say about concepts of heaven and hell in their works, and their deployment of poetic images associated with happiness and luck. At one point, Dante appears to be losing the contest, though the novel isn’t clear on this.
“I am just presenting the two societies’ concepts of heaven, the highest happiness. It is up to the reader to choose which he likes best.”
The Arabic translation of Strasburger’s “The Story Teller” has been published by Dar al-Adab and was released December 2013 at the Arab Book Fair.