Sunday, 5 December, 2021
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BOOK REVIEW

Surrealist Poet Abdul Mannan Syed in M. Harunur Rashid’s Translation

Jainab Tabassum Banu Sonali

Surrealist Poet Abdul Mannan Syed in M. Harunur Rashid’s Translation

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I have always had a deep fascination with human nature that is essentially contradictory and thus superfluously marvelous. The contradictions that lie in the fine line of two dominantly coexisting states of mind—reality and fantasy—create life as Salvador Dali would say that “Everything contradictory creates life”. And to quote Andre Breton, “The marvelous is always beautiful, anything is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful”. As a student of literature, I found this sort of empowering thought process that lets men live by their fantasies in surrealistic poems. I wrote a twelve-thousand-word dissertation on Jibanananda Das’s surrealistic poems in my undergrad under the brilliant tutelage of the eminent poet and professor Dr. Kaiser Haq at ULAB. I literally got drunk on poetry and, interestingly, was metamorphosed into Banalata, Shefalika, deer, horse and even the corpse while encountering Das’s poems. It was indeed a surreal experience.

While writing my thesis paper, I came to know about Syed Abdul Mannan who happens to be one of the highly recognized surrealist poets in Bangladesh. He has authored more than 150 books to his credit. I looked for his poems and got many, but in Bangla. I needed Abdul Mannan Syed’s poems authentically and brilliantly translated into English. Recently, I have got a book of Abdul Mannan Syed’s selected surrealist poems translated by the eminent literary scholar, teacher of the teachers, and one of my favorite Bangladeshi poets and philosophers, Professor M. Harunur Rashid. This book has been published by Shamabesh—a sister concern of Pathak Shamabesh—in 2014. I wrote my dissertation in 2015. Before starting my work, I went to Pathak Shamabesh and looked for books on Surrealism and Jibanananda Das. Fortunately, I found a few amazing books that really helped me do my research work. But unfortunately, I did not buy this book then which is the only thing I bemoan now while reading this marvelous piece of work.

My recent venture in Syed’s poetry in Rashid’s translation has been a real treat to my soul. Before I write something about the poems, I must write a few words about the poet. I may run out of adjectives if I start jotting down the contributions of both the poet and the translator. Abdul Mannan Syed, born in 1943, is a versatile writer, poet and researcher who expanded a new stream of poetry—surrealism—in Bangladeshi literary arena. Surrealism, as Breton writes, is a “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought”. It stemmed from Dadaism and emerged as a new stream of artistic movement. Although Guillaume Apollinaire first coined the term in 1917, Andre Breton theorized the concept in 1924.

Abdul Mannan Syed is called the “Pioneer of Surrealist poetry in Bangla literature” in the book I am reviewing now, but before him, many kolkata-based poets like Jibanananda Das, Buddhadev Bose, Vishnu Dey and other poets preeminently experimented with their poetic works and composed a great number of poems that are surrealistic in nature and style. Abdul Mannan Syed, profoundly influenced by Jibanananda Das, is special, because he, consciously and unconsciously, weaves his poetic quilt by merging reality and fantasy in the construction of his poetic diction.

The book I am reviewing now is a translated version of Syed’s poems. The translator plays the most important role, because he deals with the art between tongues. He is the one who can reveal or hide images and imageries. He takes the challenge in convincing the readers with the tone, diction and discourse of the original work. He can choose to kill the poet or save him. In this book, the translator M. Harunur Rashid marvelously saved the author and, at the same time, left his own remarks on every single poem. Professor Rashid is a poet himself. His poetic sensibility has lent him hands and supported him to retain the original essence of Syed’s poems. This book is dedicated to another significant poet Asad Chowdhury. All three of the remarkably important poets exist side-by-side inside the same book cover.

It is a matter of regret that many people from the current generation do not know about the sociocultural and literary contributions of these extraordinarily talented poets and flagbearers of Bangladeshi literature. It is our job to promote their works. A big kudos to Pathak Shamabesh for publishing and promoting the works of Bangladeshi poets in translation. Now the world can read our literary pieces in world-class translations. I read and reviewed a few more Shamabesh books of Bangladeshi authors and translators. This book is by far the best in terms of incorporating and designing the contents. There are 32 poems from three different poetry books of Abdul Mannan Syed. Two things definitely deserve a special round of applause: one, the poems are listed book-wise so that one can find similarities in the themes and moods of the poems; and two, all the original Bengali poems are added to the English ones so that the readers can read the poems in both languages and also evaluate translator’s works.

Although our school curriculum largely emphasizes denotative translation, it is important to note that translation is not an exact copy of the main text. There is no direct mimesis in translation. Many things—important and unimportant—may get lost in the labyrinth of translation. Sometimes it becomes an adaptation or simply a metaphrase of the original phrases and lines. In translating rhymed poetry, a translator faces challenges in maintaining rhyme scheme, rhythm and stanzas. However, in a prosaic work, a translator can enjoy utmost liberty and flexibility. He can always transliterate instead of just doing a word-to-word denotative translation. Professor Rashid chose to transliterate most poems as most poems are unrhymed and prosaically written in this book. The side-by-side placement of the poems in both languages help readers of both codes to read and understand both the work and art of translation.

There is an interesting introduction that precisely deals with the life and works of poet Abdul Mannan Syed and also briefly analyzes some of his surrealist poems. The book contains selected poems from Syed’s Cluster of Poems Born Blind (1967), Moonlight-Sunbeam Therapy (1969) and Surrealist Poems (1982). The first two books “did not conform to the aesthetic norm or the stock responses with which the readers were familiar” which is why both books became controversial on their publication. Since the concept of surrealism was also new to the readers during the 1960s—the period when poetry appeared as a form of protest in Bangladesh—readers simply considered his poems as absurd and obscured literary works. Later, in 1982, the poet took the responsibility to simplify and clarify the term “surrealism” to his Bangladeshi readers as he published a full volume of surrealist poems under the title Paravastava Kabita.

Abdul Mannan Syed wrote his first surrealist poem at the age of 16 and published his first book Jonmandho Kavita Guchcha at 18. He was influenced by Jibanananda Das, but was much like Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism. Like Breton, he merged dreams and realities together in his poetry. His poems seem more dreamlike or nightmarish than real as he perceived dream as “the reality which emerged from the unconscious and revealed the hideous and the ugly that lie beneath the smooth surface of a civilized society”. There is an obsession of the poet with trivial things which are fantastically portrayed in the poems.

Surrealist poets allow their mind to freely reign over their fantasies. In the second appendix of the book, an essay titled “Secrets of the Magical Surrealist Art” explores the techniques of the surrealist poets. Poet Syed, like other surrealist poets, writes “quickly, without any preconceived subject”. The renowned Bangladeshi poet Al Mahmud once said, “There is no subject matter in Mannan Syed’s poems. The subjects of his poem are the poem itself and the poet himself”. This is why his poems seem apparently absurd. In the first book Jonmandho Kavita Guchcha, Syed repeatedly, automatically and obsessively plays with the images of ghost, inanimate objects, women and animals. While bringing his fantasies to the real world, he himself wants to get rid of his body and wants to become a building instead as he writes in “PagoleiRatrira” (These Frenzied Nights), “I had a wish to swap this whole house with my body, now where the sunset is eminent and belief is but a black rose”.

The translator beautifully transliterates the lines. He also takes the privilege and liberty to incorporate modern words. Although this poem is originally written and published in the early 60s, the translation is a work of the contemporary period when the postmodern readers use many explicit words normally. For example, to translate “tinti stoner ekmatalruposhi”, Rashid writes “a frenzied sexy beauty with three bursting breasts”. The word “sexy” has been normalized. This is what I love about M. Harunur Rashid. Whenever he writes a poem or translates one, he normalizes the words, diction and discourse so beautifully that a reader repeatedly feels like reading the same piece over and over again. Every reading comes with a different shot of intoxication.

Syed’s poems are dark and sometimes horrific in nature. His absentmindedness with normalcy is prominent in his poem. The poet is obsessed with moonlight which he defines, in “Jotsna” (Moonlight) as “the egg-like shaven head of a hangman without air and water, with several pairs of eyes, a hand with seven fingers held in fist”. Just imagine moonlight in a form of this aforementioned zombie! I got goosebumps while reading how horribly the “frenzied sexy beauty” begets a horse-man and a baby that “would sew the deeper door, sitting in a miraculous darkness of a noon, of matricide”. I had a trembling experience while reading how multidimensionally “we are eating the sun-god—licking, sucking, scratching, biting, groaning—in signs, strength and by laying traps”. I was romantically and metaphysically touched to know that “love is a smashing victory—the victory of touching another soul”.

Like Jibanananda Das, Abdul Mannan Syed is also obsessed with the image of woman. He writes a series of seventeen short length poems on woman. My personal favorite poem from this series in the two lines poem as he writes, “O man, rouse the woman inherent in you, / Woman, the male instinct within you”. I love how poetically he denies the absoluteness of genders in the biologically sexed bodies. Being a man or a woman is a psychological, sociocultural and historical identity. The body is male or female. The mind is man or woman. Poet Syed suggests that the man should arouse the woman in him and vice versa. This sort of arousal, in my opinion, in vital for developing tolerance for the other gender. In speaking of the gender, he again asks, “Woman, who do you belong to? / Have you descended from the heart of man? A god-man?” These two lines poems are really thought-provoking. The term “Ishwar-purush” or “god-man” reminds me of how gendered the idea of God is in this patriarchal world.

 Surrealism was innate in Syed as he himself used to claim. Before reading Andre Breton, he composed fully-fledged surrealist poems mastering a unique style of writing that displayed unconventional and exceptional artistic energy. He read Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism which is added to the appendix of this book. There are three appendixes and one glossary section which will undoubtedly help any researchers who would like to work on the concept of surrealism. The veteran poet Abdul Mannan Syed died in 2010 after giving birth to marvelous poetic pieces that will never die. I hope the translator M. Harunur Rashid gets blessed with a longer life so that young researchers like me can read, review and write research papers on Bangladeshi poets and their works.