Friday, February 10, 2012

A quibble about The Golden Scales

I'd guessed that The Golden Scales, by Parker Bilal (nom de plume of Jamal Mahjoub), had been translated from Arabic and that tin-eared rendering was responsible for some of the clunky prose in the book's prologue. But I can find no translator's credits, and online biographies say Mahjoub was born in London, brought up in Khartoum, educated in Wales and Sheffield, and lives in Barcelona. Given that background, I now assume that he writes in English.

Whatever the original language, sentences like the following do nothing but get in the way:
Liz Markham reared back, completely stalled by the human mass that confronted her.”
What's the difference between stalled and completely stalled? What does completely add? What does it do except slow down what the author clearly intends as a heart-pounding opening?
Behind her she heard someone make a remark that she couldn’t understand.”
Why the extra words? Why not “she heard a remark” or “someone made a remark”?
“Glancing back, certain that someone was behind her, she moved away from the hotel, pushing impatiently through the crowd of tourists and tea boys...”
Pushing impatiently? How else would one push through a crowd? Yet again Bilal tells rather than shows and uses too many boring words doing it. That's apt to try a reader's patience, especially in an action scene.

My first guess was apparently wrong, but I'll try another: Mahjoub, described by some sources as an acclaimed author of “literary” novels, can't write action. I hope either that I'm wrong or that he chooses methods other than action scenes to tell his story, because I'm curious about what this writer of Arabic and African background can do with the Western crime-fiction tradition, a la Yasmina Khadra or Naguib Mahfouz.

Here's part of a blurb for the novel:
“Makana, a former Sudanese police inspector forced to flee to Cairo, is now struggling to make ends meet as a private detective. In need of money, he takes a case from the notoriously corrupt mogul Saad Hanafi, owner of a Cairo soccer team, whose star player, Adil Romario, has gone missing ..."
P.S. An author chooses Parker Bilal as a pseudonym for his first venture into crime fiction. What are the odds that he had Richard Stark or Robert B. Parker in mind?

P.P.S. Read my 2008 post on Who will be the next Samir Spade? ... (Crime fiction in the Arab world)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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53 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

There are many ways to push through a crowd: impatiently, apologetically, half heartedly, violently, silkily etc.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Does this sentence from elsewhere in the passage help?

"Her heart racing, she began to run. Her child was somewhere out there, lost in this madness. ... knocking over tables, sending glasses and trays flying, hearing cries of astonishment and curses."

If anything, impatient is ludicrously understated as well as unnecessary.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Impatient does seem to be a strange choice there doesn't it? Especially since one's patience is already at breaking point in any kind of crowd situation in Cairo.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. The woman is running headlong, heart pounding, in desperation, and she's -- impatient?

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The above excerpts are from the prologue. Here's the first sentence of Chapter I:

"Being something of an optimist, it had always struck Makana that it made a good start to the day to wake up in the morning and find himself still afloat."

Try parsing that sometime.

February 10, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Being something of an optimist, it had always struck Makana that it made a good start to the day to wake up in the morning and find himself still afloat

Being something of a pessimist, it had never struck me that it would make a good end to the night to go to bed in the evening and find myself giggling at such a quote.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I see the book is published by Bloomsbury. That explains much.

They brought it out in a pricey hardback and it currently has 2 reviews on Amazon.com

NY publishers certainly know their business.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I learned on Rachel Maddow tonight that Mitt Romney has now advertised himself as "severely conservative" apparently to counter his earlier advertisement of himself as a moderate. One of the guests on the show had fun with that, using severely as an adjective every chance he got.

It sound like what Mahjoub severely needs is an editor.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, the author seems to have a track record of about five or six novels, though how good they are and how well they've sold are a mystery to me. I wonder if Mahjoub is like John Banville -- a "literary" novelist who tried to write a crime novel and could not do a competent job of it. But at least Banville knows how to construct a sentence, even in the Benjamin Black books.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, we had some fun with Ronney's remark in the Twitterverse earlier. Someone posted in disbelief that he could say what he said, and I suggested that "severely conservative" meant he was not yet critically or terminally conservative.

What a boob. It's like the first George Bush saying: "Message: I care" all over again.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana and Adrian: I'm afraid it looks more and more like I'll have to turn to Mahfouz again and not this guy if I want the news from the alleys of Cairo. (A blurb on Amazon quite naturally refers to Cairo's alleys.)

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Being an editor, it seems to me you're right about what the author severly needs.

As I did after reading the prologue, I wonder if the prose is inept only when Mahjoub tries genre conventions: the thrilling chase in the prologue, and the marginal hard-boiled detective in the first chapter's opening paragraph.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

And you have to think what sounds trite to us may sound a lot more novel in Egypt.

February 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a possibility. Matt Rees, who sets his novels in the Palestinian territories, like to talk about the review of one of his books in a Palestinian newspaper that had to explain to its audience about detectives and about the simple concept of seeking the truth. And Mahjoub, given his culture-hopping background, could well be in a position of trying to bring a literary tradition from one culture to another.

February 10, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Severely conservative"? Is that the opposite of how a colleague describes herself as a "flaming liberal"?

Yes, why couldn't Romney have said "extremely"? If that's what he meant. Of course he didn't because he doesn't know what he means, he doesn't know what he is. It might be different tomorrow, depending on the audience.

But, ever the devil's advocate, I also wish Obama's "misspoke" phrases got the airplay and twittering that the gaffes made by those on the right do.

Love my v-word: codsop
Sounds like an Elizabethan swear word.

February 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds like codswallop!

If Obama is a phony, he's at least smooth at it. The very clumsiness of "severly conservative" suggests ineptitude as well as insincerity. I'll tell you, this is an election season to depress Republicans. You're running against a wounded president in a traumatically bad economy coming out of two wars and possibly headed for another, and this lot of clowns, zealots, and thick-tongued fools is the best the GOP could come up with? I bet the party wishes it could postpone the vote and go double-or-nothing in four years.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Although most of my friends were head over heels about Obama, I had my reservations. Now, they all feel disenchanted and by comparison, I'm a fan, even though I still have reservations. But it's hard not to love the guy on a certain level. I sent this valentine card to my sister,knowing she would appreciate it, but she is the only diehard fan I know.

As I said to her, I'm pretty sure this guy has a second career ahead of him if this one should happen to fall through.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He does the Bill Clinton self-effacing lip-bite at the beginning of that clip. Being a smart, personally magentic young president who faces a tumultuous end to a first term is not the only quality the two share.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

The change we can believe in theme had become a bit hollow to me before he even took office. But the personal attacks on his character and the lack of respect to the office he holds that the right has shown will lead me to vote for him regardless of disappointment about issues like Guantanamo, qualms about the drone attacks, and true uneasiness about some of the concessions he's made to the Republicans in order to get anything done.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One small example of the lack of respect has been the occasional much publicized refusal by some professional athlete to refuse to join his team for the traditional White House visit after winning a championship. I don't care what athletes think, and they ought to have the good gracew to keeup their mouths shut.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

The celebrity culture makes them out to be so much more than athletes, I suppose it's understandable it would go to their heads a bit.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, it's boody comical to hear a goaltender for the Boston Bruins holding forth on the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just dug out one news story about that goaltender's political statement. He is an American. That same story contained statements from the team's Czech captain and Canadian coach about how honored they were by the opportunity to visit the White House and meet the president. Draw your own conclusions.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Well, Americans are a funny lot and we do reserve the right to ungrateful. And disrepectful. But I would think that the goaltender would as an athlete at least realize that he was not an individual in this case, but a member of a team, and a representative of it. And that the coach might have reminded him of that.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"...he was not an individual in this case, but a member of a team..."

Exactly. He should have smiled, shaken the president's hand, and kept his mouth shut.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

If he had ever worked in retail, he would know how to go about it.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If he had ever edited-- Oh, never mind.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Understood.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Didn't you suggest that you could write a book based on your experience working retail? I could do the same about my profession. The books could be part of a series.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Yeah, I like some of the anecdotes, but I think in the end, I am too weary of it all to really want to write it up.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We need to discuss this further!

February 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I'm not entirely sure that's true.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, let's postpone it until after retirement.

February 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I've discovered your posting on the Bilal novel, and I am just about to read the sequel in order to do a commissioned review. Your focus on Bilal's syntax has me on guard. More to the point, I am now somewhat reluctant to go on with the reading. In any case, as someone who taught English composition for a number of years, I recall one of my basic recommendations for student writers: avoid adverbs. Should we send that advice to Bilal?

November 27, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Postscript: Have you had a chance to read the sequel--Dogstar Rising--which is now out in ARC with a publishing date set for Feb '13?

November 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., Bilal, his editor, his copy editor, and his publisher need advice on syntax.

The writing in those opening passages was so bad that I never went on reading the book, so I don't know if my speculation is right, that the author may be a competent writer who can't write action scenes. But where the hell were the editors who should have told him this?

I had not known that thee was a sequel. If a copy or a sample fell into my hands, I'd take a look, but I'm sure as hell not going to pay for a novel until the author and his editors and his publishers convince me that he can write a sentence.

November 27, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Perhaps this is an English-as-second-language issue for Bilal. However, it may be that publishers have become so eager to publish novels from the Arab speaking world (in the name of inclusion, post-colonial guilt, and sensitivity to Islamic cultures)that they are willing to ignore normal editing standards. With the market being flooded by works from beyond the borders, I would wager on the latter as the reason.

November 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might be right on both counts. In the first case, where were the editors to clean up his prose? Did they not care? Are they as tin-earred as I've heard some editors can be? Do they not dare to smooth out the gritty integrity of a voice from the streets?

Having seen how litte some newspapersand publishers care about good writing, I would not discount the possibility that the publisher in this case is just one more among them.

November 27, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I have some experience with editors at a couple of print publications who could not resist putting their personal imprints on my submissions; these imprints involved changes of syntax and emphasis, and they were not improvements, but a humble writer of reviews gets very little traction when arguing with editors, so I do not argue.

November 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Who can tell? I am a humble newspaper copy editor, so I know I am better than both the writers and the higher-level editors.

November 27, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I just finished reading and reviewing Bilal's _Dogstar Rising_. If you were to read the review I have submitted to _Mystery Scene_ (which might not be published since they tend to skip unflattering reviews), you would consider yourself fortunate that you had only read the previous Bilal book. I will not cite all the novel's defects, but my review includes several examples of Bilal's flawed syntax, illogical phrases, senseless modifiers, and annoyingly polemic digressions in the narrator's and characters' comments, some of which sound too much like Wikipedia entries focusing on Egyptian history, politics, and religion.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Here is more: as the protagonist enters an Ottoman-style house, the author offers this sentence, which sticks out like an extraneous encyclopedia entry: “In the Middle Ages, Cairo was larger than Venice, a vast city of legend, and anyone with an interest in trade had to come here.” Such a sentence—made worse by its syntax (i.e., Is Cairo or Venice the city of legend?)—does nothing to advance the narrative. Or consider this sentence: “She wore a light blue dress covered in ribbons and bows that emphasized her full figure.” Who knew that ribbons and bows could be so emphatic? And ponder this sentence: “On it a series of small panels gleamed darkly like pearls inset in the brown, smoky wood.” How does something gleam darkly?

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., it sounds to me as if Bilal is a crap writer in English and his pubilshers can't recognize this or don't care. You may be right that's trying to cash in on new interest in the Arab world among readers of English. But I'd rather read Naguib Mahfouz. Or Yasmina Khadra. Or Matt Rees. Or anyone who can produce a coherent sentence.

You assume incorrectly that I read the previous Bilal book, though. I put it aside quickly. I spend enough time battling to convert shit prose into elegant English for a living; I don't want to do it it my spare time, too.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

My job as a university instructor of literature, drama, and English composition means that I have to use the on/off switch in my head when reading books for reviews because it is such a different discipline. Otherwise, I start correcting every grammatical error, offering recommendations for stylistic and diction and organizational improvements, and then giving the text a numerical grade. Bilal, because of his shortcomings--and I haven't even begun to rant and rave about his frequent sentence fragments and annoying pronoun agreement errors--would have earned something like a 72 for his efforts. Yeah, I am an easy grader.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Trouble is, if a novel gets a grade below, say, 95, it doesn't deserve to be publised. Move the curve to where it should be for publishable books, and Bilal doesn't get a grade. He gets his paper back marked "unacceptable" and is told to rewrite it.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Too many editors now working in the publishing field are recent, imperfect products of American education. An old dinosaur (e.g., yours truly) has seen the decline in the quality of published writing over the past two or three decades. Texts earning a 95% are almost as rare as dinosaurs. I see too many published works that would earn C's and B's. The A's (in publishing and in my classes) are rare.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One author who comments here occasionally blames authors for mistakes and shitty writing. I blame the pubishers; they're the ones offering inferior product and debasing our culture. Thus, while translator, editor, copy editor and possibly author are at fault in a case such as this one, it’s ultimately the publisher who decides the result is good enough to be sold to the public.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Besides, it's the publishers who hire those damn editors.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Thanks for sharing the earlier posting link. I will read and digest all the comments later. As for your posting itself, I would add this: I tell (without much effect) student writers to revise, edit, and eliminate unnecessary clutter (e.g. most prepositional phrases; most adjectives and adverbs; nearly every use of the passive voice; almost any sentence that begin with "there" or "it"). Most students, however, ignore my advice, and overlook the ironic violations within my own advice. They obviously know better. Unlike Hemingway who preferred to show only the tip of the iceberg, most students want to show off by including the whole damned thing.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"almost any sentence that begin with "there" or "it")."

And most uses of "to be" in any form. At least your examples come from students who, in theory, are in school to learn to write better. Mine come from people who without a blush accept a paycheck for their writing and whose bylines identify them not as staff reporters but as staff writers.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or almost any use of "level" other than as a verb, an adjective, or a carpenter's tool.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In a story I am editing now, I have changed "level of spending" to "spending" and "come to the aid of" to "helped." At least I have the satisfaction of having been thanked many times by management of this newspaper for making precisely that kind change.

Just kidding. Newsrooms are run by former reporters.

November 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The question is largely academic. The dire state of newspapers, combined with decisions by managers who are former reporters to let newsroom cuts fall disproportionately on copy desks means that interaction with writers is practically zero. As for the editors who should be working to ensure that the writers produce serviceable prose, I will say charitably that the quality of their work varies widely.

November 28, 2012  

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