Absent Presence, By Mahmoud Darwish

Lessons in life from the great divide
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Mahmoud Darwish was a giant of world literature.

This elegant edition of the last completed work before the Palestinian poet's death in 2008 makes clear why. Absent Presence is a huge little book which defies conventional categorisation. It offers costly wisdoms from a life journey, rendered in the opaque lyricism of his poetry. Memoir alternates with essays on Arabic letters and his far from "ordinary day", sleep and not "suffering", prison and "foreign women", beginnings and "this last journey".

Darwish described the book as "a baffling text", and it is certainly demanding. Absent Presence is his third volume of memoir-driven prose. The earlier volumes, Journal of an Ordinary Grief (1973) and Memory for Forgetfulness (1985), shared a translator. Absent Presence, translated in this UK edition by Mohammad Shaheen, most closely resembles the poetic style of Mural (2000).

Absent Presence is formed by 21 sections which run through the poet's life: from his boyish witness of "annihilating disaster" – the "Nakba" of 1948 – to his last years in Ramallah. The title refers to those Palestinians who, after massacres and expulsion, made it back home to a "nameless" internal exile. Darwish was a "present-absentee" from the age of eight or nine when his family returned to within sight of their stolen lands, outside their erased village. "Absent presence" also characterises the place of women in Darwish's life, as well as the winged quality of his poetry.

Darwish died still under Occupation, but makes no special pleading: "rather, seize this reality, this name of yours, and learn how to write your proof". His is the voice of dispossessed Palestine but its longings, including sheer lust, are universal. This book overflows with resonant lines and questions like, "How do words expand to embrace the world?" Not all of Darwish's attempts work and here they are sometimes hindered by a too cumbersome translation of the Arabic. However, now that their author has gone, his attempts crystallise as unique achievements.

Absent Presence is best approached by the leanest of Darwish's poetry, in State of Siege (2002), or perhaps by the newly-translated Journal of an Ordinary Grief. Here Darwish joins letter with letter to house the land of his birth in the rhythms of a sea that opens onto humanity's furthest horizon. His writing "like love...dissolves if you grasp it" – but this is a book for life.

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