• Optimism is an Illness: On Hisham Bustani’s The Perception of Meaning

    In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. –George Orwell

    The epigraphs to this bilingual edition of Hisham Bustani’s The Perception of Meaning, from Mansur Al-Hallaj and RabindranathTagore, foreground two key words that define the book’s challenging contents: see and vision. These often brutal, occasionally terrifying prose poems (the publisher classifies them as short stories) do not welcome so much as seize readers, bombarding them with nightmarish, often surreal images of violence and chaos. While Bustani roots the stories in specific places and incidents in the Middle East, his outlook is unflinchingly global.

    Most of the pieces offer prophetic warnings as well as blame, indicting humankind for hastening its own demise. Hope is invariably absent. In “The Book of Meaning,” man is portrayed as an actor with no shadow, on a stage with no audience: “It’s pointless,” he thought to himself, deciding to step down. Three poets “hurling poems at the opposite wall” demonstrate Art is no solution: “the poets have died, taking with them the similes and metaphors.” The intellectuals, the couple posting selfies online, the rich man, the beggar, all are alone, their pointlessness magnified by technology.

    T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” comes to mind as a reference point, but Bustani’s work is of and for the online generation, portrayed here as victims rather than masters of technology. Technology and social media also infuse humor into the otherwise pessimistic (some might say bleak) world of Bustani’s work. In “Laila and the Wolf” (the Arabic version of Little Red Riding Hood) the legend is subverted with the grandmother sexually abusing the wolf and the voyeuristic hunter posting a video on YouTube. At the end, “a child threw his story book in the trash, and walked out of the library into the street.” I was reminded of W. B. Yeats’s “All changed, changed utterly.” Similarly, “A Game of the Senses” with its reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, suggests that technology and man’s devotion to it, have forced the five senses to “commit mass suicide,” the imagination destroyed, the mind “penned in by tall fences made of wires and high-speed microprocessors.”

    I felt the most successful of these anti-tech pieces was “This Deluge of Emotion is Going to Make Me Vomit,” perhaps because I sensed a more honest poetic voice at play, as opposed to the one in weightier poems requiring multiple footnotes. A series of confused questions, simply put, reveal the insincerity of online versus real relationships — the edges are blurred: do we know what is real and what is fake anymore? Human interaction, love, “has become a passing line that quickly disappears behind the top frame of the chat screen.” Technology caters to man’s base desires and clouds his ability to discern what is valuable and what is mere trivia.

    The first piece, “Apocalypse Now,” directly references the Coppola film and sets the scene for the whole collection with effective images spawned by modern warfare and commercial greed. The focus here is on victims: human, animal, and vegetable. While Nature cries, man responds with, “I will bottle your sorrow and sell it” and feeds more dead trees into photocopying machines. Environmental concerns are more specifically addressed in “Requiem for the Aral Sea” which also rues the catastrophic results of man playing god.

    Is there any hope in Bustani’s perception of the modern world? The title of the final piece in the book, “Salvation,” is apparently ironic, with its reference to Jesus’s last words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The most arresting image in “Salvation” is the “small blue bead” (Earth) that “knows it roams in a wide, wide, wide space without purpose, without much consequence.” Optimism is an illness, cured by current affairs: “He swallowed the news broadcast twice a day, and wrapped himself up in newspaper before going to sleep.” “Salvation” ends by addressing the reader in the second person, describing post-apocalyptic man’s suffering as “endless,” a repeated word that fades away. It is a powerful, melancholic signing-off.

    The translator of The Perception of Meaning, Thoraya El-Rayyes, has produced a work that comfortably embraces the English idiom. This is fitting for a book with international influences and universal vision. Clearly, Bustani is not mired by roots or attachment to the Middle East; his world is your world too. The often surreal imagery can be shocking but the more realistic pieces stayed with me longer, perhaps because they felt more emotionally true. For example, “History Will Not Be Made on this Couch” depicts a man torn between holding on to his perception of normality (symbolized by his television remote control) or risking his life to join the Egyptian uprising in 2011. In this piece, the context is clear and the message unadulterated by metaphor or esoteric references.

    Bustani tackles the “big issues” of modern life with imagination and originality. He is duly recognized as an important voice in Arab literature and his work is starting to appear on academic reading lists. But he has the potential to reach the general reader in any language. Richard Price’s advice is salient: “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write.” There is evidence here that Bustani does this very well, but I would have liked more of it. For now, I am sure Bustani will find a niche readership that appreciates the magnitude of what he sets out to achieve in The Perception of Meaning. It will be interesting to see what he produces next.


    See Safia Moore’s interview with Hisham Bustani in The Honest Ulsterman, September 2015.