L’Apocalypse arabe is composed in French by the Arab American poet Etel Adnan. It was published in 1980; Adnan’s English translation appeared in 1989. Of the several rubrics under which The Arab Apocalypse may be read — visual poetry, surrealism, translation, postcolonialism — its work of witnessing most commands my attention. Not least because it was written in response to and in the immediate context of the Lebanese Civil War (which broke out in 1975), but also because these other strands (the visual, the surreal, etc.) make the act of witnessing a provocative challenge to any notion of stability that may — innocently or otherwise — attend questions of representation in literatures of witness.
A novel in which the subject is Paris. A collage novel. A list novel. A novel of various forms of hopefulness and despair.
“We’re moving towards something that does not exist. The voyage is infinite. The passenger is not.” .
Where has Adnan taken the form of the novel, as a poet of many countries and languages? She has chosen place for character. She has chosen Paris, all of Paris. Her gaze penetrates the beauty and limitations. She does not ignore Paris as “the heart of a lingering colonial power.” She has taken the reader not only to the streets of Paris, but to the skies, and to the passing thoughts of the relocated Parisian who writes through circumstances, concerns, observations.
“Some rare evenings, the glow is so strong that pink hue, an after hue, an illumination made of color and fire, seeps between the buildings, these evenings which are an illumination for the whole body, not only the eyes.” .
That no other persons come into focus for more than a moment creates an experimental cinematic sense of the city. We are lured toward not merely a visual surface but a detailed map of luminosities and gravities