Double Agent in Hebrew

Omri Herzog

Double Agent in Hebrew

"In Place," by Salman Masalha, Am Oved, 70 pp.

… I asked myself, what poetic and political task is given to someone who writes in a language that his not his mother tongue.

In 1975, the French intellectuals Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari coined the term "minor literature" in the context of their study of Franz Kafka: They argued that the major effect of a "minor" text, i.e. one that is written in a language that is not the original language of the writer's culture, is of de-territorialization, meaning a physical shift or change of direction that the text undergoes from the original language to the language of exile or the language of the new territory. The minor text does not have a place of its own: it functions in a space that is between given spaces – the space of the source language and the space in which the work is a visitor. The first book in Hebrew by poet and literary scholar Salman Masalha, "In Place," presents this movement: "I write in the Hebrew language / which is not my mother tongue / to lose myself in the world. He who does not / get lost, will never find the whole;" and this movement in turns creates a poetic experience that is rare in the complexity of its language, emotion and consciousness. This slim book of Hebrew is, to my taste, a masterpiece.

The unique language status of Masalha's poetry allows the conduct of negotiations with the fluid political relations that define the rules of belonging to the communal landscapes that are inherent in the Hebrew language. These are relations of negotiation that constitute a political burden – which can sometimes overwhelm certain minor works – but can also afford a creative privilege, because the poetic manipulation is carried out not on stable and pre-known language materials, but rather on the fact of their permanence and familiarity. Masalha's poems devote themselves to a double alienation effect: that which is inherent in the poetic medium itself and that which is inherent in the use of every routine of description or grammatical construction that sets it in motion. Masalha, the double agent of the speaker in the language, exploits it in a finely tuned, self-aware and sophisticated way, and enlists extraordinary creative and expressive freedom. He writes: "As I have no government, with / or without a head, and there is no / chairman sitting on my head, I can / under such extenuating circumstances / sometimes allow myself to be human, a bit free."