The First English-Translation Volume of Hédi Kaddour

The sun highlights the ash tree’s
Shadow against the golden shadow
Of the grove…

The opening lines of Hédi Kaddour’s poem “New Wine” create the colorful, tangible atmosphere characteristic of his work. Employing surprising descriptions of his everyday world, the narrator of each poem in Kaddour’s collection Treason, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker, pulls the reader into an environment which is both entirely new and familiar. Kaddour, the son of a Tunisian father and a French Algerian pied-noir mother, is strongly influenced by non-French European writers, “often with the experience of displacement or exile.” Subsequently, some of his work focuses on French and North African history, and he is inspired by writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Anna Akhmatova, W. H. Auden, and Derek Walcott. Much of his poetry, however, is the product of daily observation inParis and an authentic interest in his surroundings.

He often expresses what might be called the strange everyday, unexpected events that could not be called unusual. “New Wine,” for instance, continues to describe “an adventurous/ Woman passing” under “the stained-glass windows/ In the church of defunct histories.” Although we may not often walk past ancient churches, we know what “the laughter of the bells” should sound like to a woman going past on a beautiful day. That the church symbolizes “defunct histories” is fascinating, but not vital, until one of Kaddour’s favorite devices, a short piece of dialogue, illuminates the phrase:

I’m leaving you because you aren’t
Anybody anymore, she had told her lover
Over a carafe of new wine

The church’s stories preached from the pulpit, or perhaps past centuries it has seen, are as irrelevant as the love story and vice versa. Yet the comparison generates new interest in both. Likewise, heartbreak is nothing unusual, but we find the now-defunct history of the woman’s relationship endlessly intriguing when the narrator finishes by telling us she is smiling through tears. An award-winning translator, Hacker presents translations of the poems that preserve all the emotion and nuance of the original French in this bilingual volume.

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