A Brother’s Life-in-Death: A Review of Prosopopoeia by Farid Tali
by Farid Tali (Transl. by Aditi Machado)
86 pp / $16.00
In Prosopopoeia, Death is called “[…] the most ridiculous thing in the world.” And I can’t say I disagree. Death is absurd! For as long as I can remember, I have always struggled to understand how to properly approach the subject. I am particularly obscene when it comes to funerals. I’ll nervously crack jokes about how I envision my own funeral. I’ll quietly laugh. And attempt to suppress laughter. I’ll fight the urge to smile. And I’ll feel awful about it later, but I don’t know how else to react. Something about the whole thing feels surreal to me. Almost fake. To see someone you once knew or loved reconstructed in a casket? Embalmed? Sometimes I find that they no longer resemble themselves. I can’t handle it. The make-up… The occasional facial reconstruction… At the same time, I have also witnessed a loved one take their very last breaths in hospice care. Slowing blasts of fog against an oxygen mask. Nothing I can do but hold a cold hand that can’t quite hold my hand. And patiently wait. Until it goes limp. Observing death—someone’s last stages of life—has always affected me more than whatever goes on in a funeral parlor. I believe it’s important to pay your respects, but I also accept Death for what it is. That is to say that I accept Death as an inevitable feature of Life. I think that’s why I appreciated this novella so much. Because Death is the most ridiculous thing in the world.
Farid Tali’s narrator is the brother of a young man, Hakim Tali, who recently passed away from HIV/AIDS. For 65 pages, this dead brother is elegized across two entwined textual bodies of still-living tissue—an italicized narrative that folds back numerous layers of the narrator’s dead brother’s decomposing body and a non-italicized narrative that wrestles with memories of the brother’s barely living, drug-addicted, and night-stained body. The watchtower-like narrator of Prosopopoeia is very much a self multiplied. As far as narratology is concerned, issues of identity become enticingly complicated by Aditi Machado’s own unique translatory practice. Interestingly enough, Machado refers to Tali’s narrator as “F.,” possibly suggesting that our narrator is still linked to Farid in many ways. In a way, Machado’s approach to translation feels more like a translatory drag performance. For Prosopopée to become Prosopopoeia, Aditi Machado must assume the role of whoever F. might be. However many voices F. might be. In one of the most intriguing translator notes I’ve ever read, Machado calls herself a “translator-narrator” and acknowledges the many selves of the chaotic narrator she refers to as F.:
So the difficulty was not identity precisely—nor subject matter. The difficulty was writing from the point-of-view of someone who is confused, trying to figure something out, and more or less unreliable. F. is supposed to be a witness to his brother’s life and death, and then to his life-in-death—the curiously alive corpse staging the spectacle of its own demise. But at crucial points he claims not to be there: “I saw nothing. I was informed.” Presumably it is his sister who describes some of the events surrounding their brother’s death, which F. then reimagines and retells. But I don’t quite believe him.
Machado is unabashed when it comes to questioning the invasive self of a translator, the visibility of a translator. She writes, “I am curious about translators who report feelings of egolessness when they translate. Because I have an ego. It is always interfering.” Machado quite boldly suggests that to translate Prosopopée, to take on the challenge of inhabiting a possibly unreliable narrator (or narrators), requires interference. Translatory visibility. And perhaps that is why I have chosen to begin this review by addressing this translator’s unique afterword, as opposed to including the typical narrative summary of a plot that I would only fail to efficiently summarize. My main point is that Machado is present. The translator is outsized and outspokenly present in Prosopopoeia. To translate the complex, deathly, and multi-narrative world that Farid Tali has rendered, Machado dares to comprehend what she conceives of as F., to mirror the “invasive” and “lethal” blooms of language spanning the pages of this unforgettable elegiac novella.
The Decomposition Narrative
While at times suffocating and city morgue-cold, this specifically italicized narrative also surprisingly reveals much beauty in its panning of the measured process of dying—of the decomposition of F.’s brother’s body. F. begins by isolating his brother’s head. Tali notes: “The head at the end of the body is the last to die.” So, in a sense, we begin at the end. And descend via neck. (“One might say the neck is born further down, near the abdomen.”) And from the neck to the rising and lowering chest. (“The movement is no longer the same. It falls. Only sadness ascends, sadness breathed out in a sigh, collected by those who are alive.”) Then to the shoulders. (“Like colossal towers awaiting dynamite.”) Then to a church-like stomach. (“A curtain drawn aside, revealing a hideous pit haunted by black.”) Then to the hands, which uncover themselves “religiously, naked like asphalt racing after deserts. Treeless, houseless, alone in the midst of nature. Dainty, perilously thin, they nevertheless disclose the strength of the fingers.” Tali isolates body part after body part, but also continuously carries the reader toward an imagery that exists outside the body. Tali brings us in, closer and closer, sometimes even microscopically close, then immediately pushes us outward—catapulting us into a series of wide-shots far beyond the brother’s body. Tali’s scope is laudably massive and readers might even sometimes forget that they’re witnessing what most closely resembles an autopsy. Especially when it comes to images like the ones on page 43:
The muscle was swelling up, sculpting itself, puffing its chest out. It was shaped like advancing rowboats […] The ankles are so delicate. They almost fracture. But later they will. They are like those fragile branches that bear certain familiar birds efficiently.
This brother’s body, at times, resembles anything but a human body. But we also eventually realize that F. has a difficult time in viewing his brother as human. Things become extremely complicated by the eroticization of the brother’s corpse on page 18:
The force of love, the morning of love broke there. The skin recalls: caresses, long explorations by various hands, finally lips. Everything fucked willingly. Every movement of the shoulders worsened the death rattle traveling in fine waves. One misses the supple brutality: seeing the chest lean forward, lift, descend again, as though to pick something up; seeing (and smelling) the sweat abound; then wishing for it.
And on page 31:
They too, the sex and ass of the body fall toward some other place than the one in which they were accustomed to experiencing desire. That is how death designates itself. It is a movement, it is stasis. It’s a city, an immense warship simultaneously advancing and stagnating. Desire goes nowhere.
But why does the sight of a decomposing body seemingly arouse F. in this way? What is it that F. desires?
The Remembrance Narrative
Early on in this particular narrative, our narrator-as-observer recalls a disturbing nightmare in which his brother’s head is served to him on a platter during a large meal. He compares the organization of this meal to sadaqah, one of our narrator’s first references to his relationship to Islam. Once awake, F. admits that he no longer possesses an appetite for meat. It’s not until after the description of the nightmare sequence, through his recounting of his memory of the dream, that we discover that he also ate from his brother’s head. F. says, recalling the dream, “As I ate it, I tasted the truly human meaning of his body. There, in every bite of flesh, was an aftertaste of meat. Meat has never been so polluted since its contamination by the human.” This is a perfect example of the crafty, circuitous nature of Tali’s writing. Instead of revealing the entirety of the nightmare all at once, Tali initially chooses to offer us only the image of the brother’s decapitated head. It’s through this act of recalling, of revisiting what’s already been unearthed, that readers learn of the additional grotesque details of F.’s nightmare—the act of cannibalization, for example. In a sense, one cannot risk thinking of Tali’s images as complete. There is almost never a sense of comfort. Or completeness. Only a constant fear of what’s to come.
The relationship between meat and words like “polluted” and “contamination,” reinforces Hakim’s body’s relationship to HIV/AIDS—as observed by F. It reinforces a fear of what’s to come. It also places a spotlight on the stigmatization of those who are infected with HIV. On page 45, F. reflects on the fears surrounding his brother’s infection, which also reveals the family’s (i.e. “we”) greater ignorance regarding the virus:
I wouldn’t go near it. It’s a disgusting body, I’d say, and it might take me along with it, it could transform me into what it is, make me into the horror it is, that is, turn me into disease. Already I had heard, even though I didn’t know what his disease was, that we should not drink from his glass, should not touch his razors, should pay particular attention to which toothbrush we were using, or we’d be next. And I understood that it was a question of blood, that here was death’s breeding ground on which could grow invasive and lethal plants. My brother is a vicious vegetation.
The narrator also clearly communicates that his deceased brother was bound to the night. Night, in this novella, is, at times, likened to a form of pollution. For example, on page 21, Hakim’s shadow is described as something arguably smog-like:
His body, his torso especially, sprawled out too generously. There was nothing human about this shadow that took up more space than it was permitted. Like a passing cloud, it blanketed places; it could disappear in a flash, and it would.
At first, this non-human shadow, which is later echoed by F.’s aforementioned references to his brother’s body being characterized as a disgusting “it,” feels like a metaphor for premature death. Again, on a first read, one might think F. is simply disgusted by the drugs that polluted his brother’s body. Or the AIDS virus wreaking havoc on his brother’s body. But much of F.’s own bizarre admissions might actually suggest that his brother’s corpse is a reflection of his own concealed sexual orientation. That the corpse is actually a mirror—reflecting many of his greatest fears. Parallels spring up especially as F. speaks of his brother’s nighttime sanctuary: the nightclub:
The idea that my brother might have died not from sharing needles but from fucking made me ecstatic. I chose to believe this. But I couldn’t say to this fierce and fiery child that we shared the same blood, blood that the disease could have sullied but had chosen to spare.
Why is it that F. might be “ecstatic” that his brother contracted HIV from sex as opposed to sharing needles? Perhaps it has something to do with F.’s own feelings of shame surrounding his very hidden sexuality—the implication of his being gay. But the brotherly bond goes beyond a bloodline or sexuality. When it comes to F.’s fascination with his brother’s dangerously active nightlife, our narrator’s future behavior does bare a striking resemblance to his brother’s exploits:
And later, I too, like the brother, would disappear entire nights. I would return only on Monday morning, not knowing if I’d left on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or some other day to get back only then, that morning […] There was the fact that I liked knowing my pants were covered in traces of night, traces that show up like rebukes (50).
This might also explain the seemingly strange eroticization of his brother’s dead body in the Decomposition Narrative (18). In her translator’s afterword, Machado suggests that F.’s observation of his brother’s decomposition is simultaneously an opportunity for him to come out. Machado writes, “In a grand, theatrical sweep of text, F. now reconstructs the male form, conflating his brother’s body with his lover’s.” I agree with Machado’s interpretation of what I observed in the Decomposition Narrative. (As far as what I’ve referred to as the Decomposition Narrative and the Remembrance Narrative, both are of my own conception. My own system of naming, my own attempt to make sense of the italicized text and the non-italicized text.) Machado goes on to suggest that both of these narratives, despite their different timelines, are one in the same. And I must say that I agree with her interpretation. Mainly because I’ve re-read the novella at least three times now. As early as page 17, there was what now feels like clues to F. wrestling with being gay. On a first read, it might feel like he is simply struggling in confronting his own mortality. But on a second and third read, I believe this passage alludes to so much more:
It would take root everywhere, even where death had not been. And I too, I would breathe it, this thing, I would keep it with me and on me, because I was told many times, later on, and today also I’m told, that I’m full to the brim with it, and there is no word for it.
Prosopopoeia might only be 86 pages in length, but it certainly demands multiple readings. Despite its brevity, this English-language debut from Farid Tali—its vulnerability, its brutality, its risks, its wounds, its imperfections—will move you to tears. I am grateful for Farid Tali’s courageously poetic meditation on death. Just as I am grateful for Aditi Machado’s courageous approach to translation. Perhaps Machado says it best: “How else but in a linguistic ritual—syntactically opulent, rhythmically alive—could F. have danced with his dead brother, how else rejoice in sharing his own body with another man?”