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Jokes for the Gunmen interview

Jokes for the Gunmen interview

In the first of our Man Booker International Prize 2019 longlist interviews, author Mazen Maarouf tells us what it was like to make the longlist for his book Jokes for the Gunmen, while translator Jonathan Wright tells us why he’s thrilled to be longlisted again.


Mazen Maarouf, author of Jokes for the Gunmen

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It was after midnight when I received the news and, as I live on one of the quietest streets downtown, I wasn’t left with many options but to panic. My neighbour is a musician. I think he wanted to lose his hearing like his idol Beethoven, but he never managed to be a Beethoven and ironically has an extraordinary hearing ability that can pick up any noise I make in my studio apartment though we live 30 meters apart, even sneezing or peeing. His left leg was amputated due to diabetes, and he started to accuse his neighbors that they were making noise on purpose because now he can’t come and beat the sh**t out of them as he did before. I just wanted to scream when it was announced that I was longlisted but thinking about the poor neighbour I said to myself ‘forget about it’. Of course, I could have gotten up of my bed and jumped frantically and silently, shutting my mouth with my two hands, but jumping on the floor of a 115-year-old wooden Icelandic home is something you have to think carefully about.

My landlady is a very gentle and elegant woman, but if I damaged the floor I would have had to pray day and night to win the prize so I can afford to fix it. The third option was to feed my neighbour’s cat. She's always out. Coloured, fluffy and arrogant but I like her. Her owner is a cartoonist, but he’s such a loner that his cat is the protagonist of all his stories. He recently shaved her long fur to almost nothing hoping that her new look would inspire him some ideas. But the cat fell ill of cold and I haven’t seen it since. He told me days before that his latest book is going to be about a dead cat that tells fortune around midnight. I just did not want to be in the same story with a dead cat. So I stayed in bed, eyes wide open feeling I can’t scream, jump or call any friend. I just wanted to stay alive until the next morning to tell my mom and so I lay there repeating “I do not want to die I do not want to die I do not want to die” but the problem was when I focused on being alive I panicked.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book Jokes for the Gunmen?

Jokes for the Gunmen is a collection of 12 short stories of different lengths and settings. The stories take place in a war zone however, the war in these stories is reduced into a social circumstance, a scenography or a pinned background that echoes through the lives of characters, waking up to their losses, frustrations, desperation but also their urge to exist and make sense of their lives. Traumas, insecurities and personal catastrophes fail to hinder satire that always finds a way to say ‘I am here’. Fantasies and dreams are very much intertwined with reality which in the stories, is closer to a kind of distorted and incomplete fantasy rather than reality. 

Why did you choose to write some of these stories from a childs perspective?

I grew up in a neighborhood where everything was brutal. Love, language, pleasure, satire, sadness, and joy were all brutal. Honesty too. But honesty and brutality were so intertwined that you could barely figure out if it’s the brutality that is honest or the honesty that is brutal. Everything was confusing. To be yourself and express your thoughts and dreams was often rewarded with brutality. Us children were the most vulnerable. We were told not to think about our comrades that died during this conflict, or simply disappeared. with wars continuing to happen everywhere, these absent children, troubled children, that live in somebody’s memory become more and more connected to reality. To our times and to any time. Not to mention that children re-examine the simplest features of life, and what is thought to be conventional. They question the hypothetical, the simple human act, they crack rules and equations that are believed hard to crack. For them, there’s no reality and fantasy, but two fantasies. I guess


Jonathan Wright, translator of Jokes for the Gunmen 

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It's always a thrill to be longlisted, especially when it's two years in succession! It's especially good for the author, who stands from higher sales. It's also good for the profile of Arabic literature in English translation, which is slowly gaining a foothold in the upper echelons of literary competition. But I'm rather fatalistic about these prizes. I know it's out of my hands and I've done everything I could have done, and now it's up the judges. I also recognise that the competing books might be just as good, or even better.   

What did you most like about translating Jokes for the Gunmen?

For start it's a very quirky book, offering readers a very special perspective on growing up in a city where violence is commonplace. It's also a breath of fresh air in the world of Arabic literature, where many novels and short stories still take a traditional approach to narration. The books also reminded me of my own experiences in civil-war Lebanon, but through the eyes of a Palestinian child.    

What has been the biggest challenge of translating the humour in the book?

Most of the humour isn't language-dependent but situation-dependent, so it comes through very clearly in English. Mazen was very helpful on all the little ambiguities that inevitably arise in translation and was very flexible when either I or the editors wanted to make little changes here and there to make the text crystal-clear.