IF YOU were autograph-hunting in Goa during TEHELKA’s THiNK festival, stalking the halls of the Grand Hyatt for actors, ageing rock stars, itinerant gurus, feminist icons, even politicians, you would have been excused for missing the slight figure, still spry at 82, quietly well-dressed, his sympathetic face framed by soft, white hair. A retired diplomat, you might have thought, had you noticed, or a visiting academic. You would have missed, as VS Naipaul gravely intoned onstage, “an immense man”. “We may not know him so well,” Naipaul added, “but I think you should know that we have in our midst here in Adonis today a great man.”
Surprisingly scant attention has been paid to Adonis, a perennial tip for Nobel honours, by English-speaking readers. We are catching up to more than half a century of work — of poems, of course, but also essays, criticism, the editing of like-minded writers, the creating of influential journals, the stuff of a full literary life. Adonis is like an Arab Samuel Johnson, a man of letters of the highest distinction, whose work has shaped a literature, shaped language itself. Our ignorance cannot be blamed on a lack of translations. Adonis even taught for spells at American universities, at Georgetown and Princeton, and has lived in the West, in Paris, since 1985. The English-speaking world, including that part of India that reads mostly in English and takes its cues from London and latterly New York, is just too insular to pay much attention to a poet writing in a foreign language until there’s reason (usually not literary) to take notice. In Adonis’ case, ironically given his insistence on poetry transcending politics and ideology, it is politics, his Syrian origins, that makes him suddenly attractive to English speakers, or rather to those who shape our reading choices.
Last year, Adonis became the first Arab poet to be awarded the triennial Goethe Award, a German prize that has been awarded to the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Herman Hesse and the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska five years before she won the Nobel. Earlier this year, his textured collages, featuring calligraphy, bits of verse, photographs, pieces of rough-hewn fabric, were exhibited in London, part of a longer tribute to his body of work much of which, including the multi-volume Al-Kitab (his, by all accounts, brilliant poetic rendering of centuries of Arab history and culture) remains untranslated.