- Monarch of the Square: An Anthology of Muhammad Zafzaf’s Short Stories by Mbarek Sryfi and Roger Allen
Mbarek Sryfi and Roger Allen, trans.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. vii + 285 pp., afterword, glossary. ISBN: 9780815633693. Paperback, $29.95.
She threw herself out of the window; it was not very high off the ground. He heard her running away, crying. Poking his head out the window, he watched angrily as she disappeared into the frigid darkness.(68)
This powerful passage marks the opening of “Illusions,” one of forty-five stories by the late Moroccan author Muhammad Zafzaf, gathered in English translation by Mbarek Sryfi and Roger Allen in Monarch of the Square. Zafzaf’s characters overwhelmingly find that little is left for them: children whose only playground is the street, men whose jobs have been replaced by liquor, a fellow about to be robbed by a gang instead of pleasured by the prostitute he pursued. Demoralizing as its cast may appear, Monarch of the Square is not a depressing work. For heroism, the reader should look elsewhere, and the human behavior Zafzaf foregrounds includes much cruelty. However, Zafzaf’s characters are also frank and unpretentious, and their matter-of-fact observations and comments are not devoid of humor.
Both Sryfi and Allen are experienced translators, not just of Arabic literature broadly speaking but specifically of Moroccan fiction. Sryfi’s list of published literary translations is largely centered on the work of Moroccan authors, and Allen’s numerous translations include some ten Moroccan novels. Together they have been [End Page 171] publishing small numbers of translated stories by Zafzaf since 2008. Monarch of the Square was followed in 2016 by their translation of Zafzaf’s novel al-Tha‘laballadhī yaẓharuwa-yakhtafī (The Elusive Fox). In other words, both scholars have been engaging with Zafzaf’s work, and with each other as colleagues, for years.
The stories in Monarch of the Square are evenly drawn from nine of Zafzaf’s short story collections—five stories from each collection, ordered chronologically by publication date. This generous selection spans more than twenty-five years of Zafzaf’s literary career from 1970 to 1996. The book contains no introduction; a four-page afterword accompanies the stories instead. The afterword is followed by a glossary that includes terms in Moroccan dārija and names of people, places, and events referenced in the stories.
Regardless of their chronological distance from each other, the stories in the collection are united by their characters. Zafzaf’s protagonists are almost invariably drawn from society’s vulnerable: not just children and the elderly but the poor, the unemployed, the disabled. In some cases, lethargy breathes through the pages in the form of empty hours spent drinking at a bar or café, or hanging around outside of said bar or café. In various stories, the characters are positioned as fringe elements to the squares these cafés overlook. While the choice for the volume’s title, Monarch of the Square (also the title of one of the stories), remains unexplained, one senses its monarchical part could be packed with irony. By contrast, the heart-wrenching struggle that marks some of the most moving stories in the book, such as “The Baby Carriage,” is presented with genuine sympathy.
On the whole, the translation is a pleasant read. This reviewer was not thrilled by the many occurrences of “by now” and “kept [doing x] / kept on [doing x]” strewn across the various stories, particularly in those instances where the Arabic text has no equivalent for them or where “kept [doing x]” is used to refer to an action that has not previously been mentioned. However, these phrases do effectively convey the sense of inertia that pervades the characters’ lives. The only intervention that repeatedly raises doubt about its necessity is the translators’ rendering of Zafzaf’s connectors.
Zafzaf often, even if not consistently, wrote in short, choppy sentences; the connectors he used to make his prose gel appear largely straightforward. Despite that, in certain instances the translators replace Zafzaf’s connectors by English ones that...