Review: The Novel by Nawal El Saadawi
Title: The Novel
Author: Saadawi, Nawal El
Translator: Amin, Omnia and Rick London
Length: 236 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Interlink Books / 2009
Why I Read It: Saadawi is our pic this month for A Year of Feminist Classics so I’ve been trying to read more of her works.
Date Read: 15/06/11
After really enjoying both Woman at Point Zero and God Dies by the Nile (review to come on Thursday) I have to admit that I was quite disappointed by this, Saadawi’s most recent published work. Both of the prior works that I had read could be considered experimental or at least different from a standard novel. God Dies by the Nile tells the story from the perspective of a large variety of characters and Woman at Point Zero is told as if a condemned woman in prison is telling her story to another woman. In this book though, Saadawi takes the experimental to the extreme. We are constantly jumping back and forth in time and we never really know where, or rather when, we are.
The book begins with a simple statement,
“The novel caused tremendous outrage.”
And from then on I was basically lost. The premise seems to be that a young 23-year-old woman, an orphan with no education or real identity in her country, has written a novel that has caused major outrage. The woman had become friends with some majorly prominent writers, Roustum who is also a member of the government and his wife Carmen (both writers), Samih who is a publisher, Miriam the poet, Gamalah who is a columnist. She wanted to be a writer for some time, she traveled to Spain, she had a child, she had an affair with Roustum and also dated Samih.
Unlike her prior works (of which I claim to know something although I’ve only read two) which are harsh and direct, this one was flowing and left much to be inferred rather than telling or showing any clear act or person. This both worked in that it was incredibly descriptive and flowing and really made the reader think and try to place events, but also didn’t work well for me. I cannot at all place the timeline in the book and I don’t understand how the novel that is referenced as within the novel works. There were bits of text that seemed to be the novel but who were they actually written by? And what was the full text of the novel? Also, a lot of the novel seemed just incredibly unrealistic. If this woman is such a no-one and unknown how has she become so close with these members of the elite?
Through the novel we do get hints at discrimination faced, such as the disrespect for mothers in Egypt, the hypocrisy of religion, the lack of real government in Egypt and lack of accountability of said government, and more. The talk of the different societies in Spain and Egypt especially showed the power of the citizens that was lacking in Egypt and how corrupt the system really was. There were definitely moments of beautiful prose and the book made me constantly feel like I was missing something important.
I really liked this line from Samih to the unnamed woman:
A man can never fill your imagination or satisfy your mind, or even your body. Maybe that is why love cannot transform you into a wife, a servant, or a slave, or something else that your logic might submit to. Your mind is the final shore where your strong feelings anchor. You have lived pain, sorrow, and poverty. You try to compensate for lost love and freedom by writing. You will immerse yourself in any experiment to the point of death for the sake of knowing. You’re true only to your mind and you do not feel safe except with yourself. (page 155)
A main thread through the book was the importance of writing and of the writer and of what writing does to the writer. The writer ends up missing out on things that other people experience because they focus so much on their novel and the stories in their head. The feelings of the writer are different from that of the regular person.
A final quote I loved reads:
Truth is relative, and there is always something missing in truth that prevents it from being perfect. (193)
And perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the novel is not supposed to contain any truth but the reader is meant to be left confused and wondering. An interesting book and I’d certainly like to know what others think of it, so read it if only for that reason please!