Farts in their drawers: Using and abusing foreign proverbs in fiction

fartsOne of my most treasured books is Arabic Proverbs by  J. L. Burckhardt, a Swiss orientalist famous for travelling to Mecca disguised as a Muslim in 1814-15. I’ve always found the book fascinating, and I couldn’t resist drawing on it in writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour.

A difficult technical challenge in writing this book was finding a narrative voice for my Egyptian characters. I used proverbs here and there to give some oriental spice without stereotyping; I get tired of the Bad Arab Syndrome, a condition that seems to afflict many thriller writers. I’ve vowed that no character of mine will say, “By Allah, the infidel dog will taste bitter dates this night”.

One of my favourite characters is Zouzou Paris. She’s a film actress with a notorious reputation, the mistress of a shady senior military figure. She can barely act, and admits to her friend Pierre that ‘the owl became an actress’. Here she’s explaining to her friend Pierre how she got her start:

” … I couldn’t act, but I could – let’s say – give him the kind of companionship he needed. So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes,” [Zouzou said].

“You’re known as a fine actress, hardly an owl.”

“You obviously haven’t seen any of my films…”

In fact, Burckhardt’s original proverb is ‘the owl has become a poetess’, intended to describe a person who is operating above their level of competence. I adapted it to the context and added a bit of support for the reader with ‘as the old saying goes’.

Later, Pierre describes Zouzou as ‘tough as a sheep’s ear’, but this isn’t one of Burkhardt’s: I made it up. My Arabic is reasonably good, but I have no idea whether the Egyptians say this. Does is matter? I think not.

My favourite appropriation is when I have two policemen complaining about their unappreciative superiors. Here’s a snippet:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?” one officer said bitterly.

“And we’re the ones sniffing their farts …”

The original (see illustration) is somewhat different, and Burkhardt’s translation treats the fart word delicately: ‘a slight wind’ in the translation, and then the Latin flatus in the commentary. My version is as bawdy as the original, but I’ve modified the first part so that I give farts more emphasis by placing it later in the proverb. And I couldn’t resist adding the sniffing comeback.

I wonder if other writers have used this strategy?

Stuart Campbell

You can find out about my novels here.

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Foreign words in a novel: When is it time to hold the condiments?

KPSU card 001How many foreign words can an author pepper their work with, and when does the reader get indigestion? This question came up at one of my writers groups recently when I introduced a new character who opens the second part of my novel in progress Cairo Mon Amour.

I had sprinkled the text with Russian words in order to flavour the narrative voice of the third person narrator, Ivan Maksimovich Zlotnik, a Soviet spy posted to Cairo. By the way, half of my bachelor degree was in Russian, and although I last spoke the language in Hanoi twenty years ago, I have enough residual knowledge not to make gross errors.

Here’s an example that didn’t seem to bother my writing pals:

‘ … the one who sat out the Great Patriotic War in capitalist luxury while they froze their yaytsa off and lived on barely enough calories to sustain a bird’.

Transparent I think: If you guesses nuts or bollocks, you’d be right, and if you went for dick, then no harm done. Incidentally, how many readers will divine the meaning of Great Patriotic War? Did my technique of using the Soviet counterpart for WWII backfire?

This example of my ‘fake proverb’ also didn’t offend:

‘No spare words with this one, cold as yesterday’s borshch.’

I haven’t a clue whether Russians say this, but since I’m faking it I can control the comprehensibility of the foreign words; I’d expect any reader of my books to know what borshch is.

But there was a problem with this example: My character is the son of one of the nomenklatura, but some of the group were lukewarm about the word. I’d hoped that the context would suggest that nomenklatura means something like the ‘A list’ of the Communist Party. Maybe rethink that one.

And things got really tricky with:

‘”You always had it made, Ivan,” his fellow MGIMO graduates would say.”

Some of my comrades didn’t mind encountering MGIMO without a formal introduction, and then learning later that it was the Russian acronym for Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Others were happy to wait for the meaning of MGIMO to be revealed.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that another issue was at play: Is it that readers belong to one of two camps – those that can wait and those that can’t? Coincidentally I was at my other writers group on the following night when one member read what I thought was a very elegant prologue. It was only in the last sentence that the identity of a mysterious ‘she’ was revealed. A marvelous strategy, I thought. But one or two of the members complained that they’d wanted to know who ‘she’ was up front!

On balance I think I prefer my readers to wait, so MGIMO stays where it is.  As my friend Raymond Saucisson*, editor of Charcuterie Monthly, often says: Putain, je préfère ma saucisse pour le plat principal.

Stuart Campbell

*Monsieur Saucisson kindly wrote the introduction to my anthology of essays On Becoming a Butcher in Paris.

You can buy Stuart’s novels in e-book and paperback by clicking on these links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Published again

Some self deprecating comments from my very clever author friend Sarah Bourne. We are proud founder members of That Authors Collective in Sydney.

Sarah Bourne

Last week, my second novel, Two Lives, was published, and already I’m receiving positive feedback, which is marvellous. So my question is, why am I feeling so blah about it? When Never Laugh at Shadows was published last year, I ran on adrenalin for weeks, telling everyone about it, contacting my whole email list, posting on Facebook and Twitter, talking to people about it face to face any time they would listen.
Am I not as proud of my second book? Do I believe that it doesn’t deserve the same hoohah as the first?
Not at all. I wrote the best book I could about issues that are difficult to write about. Without giving too many spoilers, there are two female protagonists, one who is dealing with the death of her son, the other is living in an abusive relationship. The feedback so far has been that they are harsh…

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Sydney author suffers from mild case of aptronymia

Lots of fiction writers suffer from it: The urge to create meaningful names for characters in novels. I was jogged into mental action on the topic by Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, set in an England not so distant from that of Dickens, and written in a style that pays homage to him; take Mrs. Sucksby for example, the stout lady who takes in foundlings and calls for an infant to squeeze when she is perturbed by events.

In fact, charactonyms, or less accurately aptronyms have a long pedigree in literature. (Actually the the best term in my view is semionym, which I invented, and then discovered already exists in a Danish Wikipedia entry.)

Oddly, this literary trope seems to be omitted from school English syllabuses; while students sweat over alliteration, parallelism, metaphor, simile, anthropomorphism and all the other fancy discussion points guaranteed to ruin a kid’s enjoyment of a good book, the meaningful naming of characters is seldom dealt with. And of course if you are reading in translation, you might miss a dash of charactonymming altogether; who knows that Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn’s stubborn bastard protagonist in Cancer Ward means ‘bone swallower’?

The Arabs have a very sensible attitude to this. I once met a man in Egypt called Harb Usfuur, which could be translated as ‘War Finch’, but there is an Arabic saying al’asmaa’ laa tu’allal , which officially translates as ‘names shouldn’t be explained’. Nothing more to say on that, then.

War Finches aside, I got to thinking about charactonyms in books I’ve recently read. William Boyd’s clunking Restless has Romer, an enigmatic European intelligence operative with a peculiar lovemaking style (one of the few highlights of the book): He does seem to pop up everywhere, i.e. roam around, and the name itself seems appropriately stateless but vaguely Central European. At least he didn’t end up with some funny marks above the vowels like those Scandinavian-looking ice cream brands whose names are completely concocted, or things you buy in Ikea. Randomly digging around my Kindle I had a look at Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, and Lucie Whitehouse’s The Bed I Made, but I couldn’t discern strong symptoms of aptronymia.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of help around: There is a whole website[1] devoted to meaningful native American names for dogs. What bounty for the novelist whose has painted herself into a plot corner where the story can only be resolved by the hero discovering that his enigmatic grandfather was a Choctaw breeder of Maltese Terriers. And there’s succour for the Celtic rural romance genre with a site for  legendary Irish and Scottish dog names[2].

In my own writing I’ve found the naming of characters intriguing and often challenging . In The Play’s the Thing I created some very obvious charactonyms, but they didn’t come easily. I have Agnes Flint, the hard-as-nails billionaire matriarch and her dopey sister Pearl; is the dissonance between Flint and Pearl too obvious? But the nasty Flint dynasty started out as the Hardbottles, a name I eventually abandoned because its charactonymic effect wasn’t transparent, and the components of the name risked giving away a plot twist. Naming my Pakistani character Jehangir Arby took weeks of research, but my Arabs were easier because I know much more about the culture; however, I wasn’t game to try charactonymia outside of my own bailiwick – authenticity will do.

I confess that Messrs. Noble and Savage were initially named so that their media firm could be wittily (you may think archly or even cornily) named ‘Noble Savage’. But perhaps the names did to some extent determine character; Alex Noble has his gallant days, and Laurence Savage is a bastard.  Martin Mooney just popped out of my brain one day: He’s vain, a cynic and a manipulator, and while neither Martin nor Mooney individually suggest these qualities (I know perfectly nice Martins and at least one very personable Mooney), the alliteration seems to trigger something more than the sum of the two names. I’ve discussed the grotesque Shacka in another essay in this collection, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how he progresses from Sciacca to Shacka to Shaker. It’s complicated.

In my novel An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity the the Jack in Jack Walsingham was chosen because I wanted the character to have appeal across generations of readers, the name being one that is both old-fashioned and currently popular. Don’t ask me where Walsingham came from. Jack’s wife Thea is half-Greek, and I wanted her to have an element of divine wisdom – like a Greek goddess perhaps? And my detective Fiona Salmon – well, I like the contrast between the poshness of Fiona and the wet slap of fish; does it convey the notion that Fiona is deeply conflicted?

Signing off, your faithful twisty-mouthed pigsty keeper (which is apparently what my name means).

[1] http://solaras.hubpages.com/hub/Cool-Native-American-Names-for-Female-Dogs . Downloaded 29 May 2014.

[2] http://solaras.hubpages.com/hub/Strong-Dog-Names-13-Irish-and-Scottish-Names-for-Male-Dogs-from-Myths-and-Legends . Downloaded 29 May 2014.

I originally wrote this article a part of an anthology called ‘On Becoming a Butcher in Paris’. You can download the whole collection for free under a Creative Commons Licence here.

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

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