Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: God Dies by the Nile, by Nawal El Saadawi

Reviewed by Christina[This is the June selection for A Year of Feminist Classics.]

Published: In Arabic, as The Death of the Only Man on Earth, in 1974. First English edition, 1985, translated by Sherif Hetata.

It's about: The fictional village of Kafr El Teen, situated on a bank of the Nile, is ruled by a corrupt, cruel, and lustful mayor. He and his henchmen (including the chief of the village guard and the local Imam) belittle and exploit the town's peasants, especially the women. All of the peasants are so downtrodden that they don't consider fighting back; their lives are pitifully bleak.

The Mayor sets his lecherous sights on two young peasant sisters named Nefissa and Zeinab. He has no qualms with crushing the men in their family under his boot to get them out of his way. Unfortunately for The Mayor, he overlooks their Aunt Zakeya.

I thought: A draft of this post with a blank "I thought" section has been sitting on the ol' blogger dashboard for over two weeks, and I still can't seem to organize my thoughts into anything meaningful. I just didn't like this book at all, and that makes me feel like a bad feminist or something. There are important issues here, ones that often occupy the minds of bleeding-heart liberals like me. God Dies has class struggle, domestic abuse, arranged marriage, female circumcision, corruption in government and religion, and even PTSD. These huge, horrible things are as relevant now as they were when the book was written in the 1970's. So why didn't I get all excited and activisty when I read this? Here are a few thoughts.

It's a difficult book to read. Action is depicted in a strange, dream-like style. There are frequent disorienting leaps between past and present events. The translation is bad, too; the text is full of awkwardly-constructed sentences and inappropriate word choices (the misplacement of "raise" where it should be "rise", for example). But most difficult of all is the unremitting intensity. It's an extremely angry book (as it should be, given all those issues) without any reprieve. Nothing good ever happens to the poor, downtrodden peasants. It's exhausting to continue to read a book that could take another horrifying turn at any moment. I once heard A Child Called "It" referred to as "Misery Porn," and that category could contain God Dies By the Nile, too. I think the purpose of all this agony is to incite the reader to action, but it just made me feel tired and depressed.

I might have felt more anger and frustration if the characters had been actual characters, but they aren't. They're thin, robotic stereotypes. The villains' actions are deplorable and I did pity the victims, so I guess that says something. But I didn't care deeply about them because they weren't fully-developed people. The only things we know about Nefissa and Zeinab is that they are beautiful and have a defiant look in their eyes, whatever that means. The only thing we know about the heroine, Zakeya, is that she has had it up to here with life. How can a piece of feminist canon have such flat female characters?

I can't tell you how much I wish I had an edition with a good, scholarly introduction. I'm sure I would have appreciated this novel more if I had understood the historical context. Maybe there is some deep allegory here, or some meaningful symbolism. I'm sure I'll benefit from the discussion at A Year of Feminist Classics, but I also hope I'm not the only one who disliked God Dies By the Nile.

[Oh, and if I had read this before compiling my Top Ten Bad Book Covers this edition of God Dies By the Nile would have been at the top of the list. I HATE HATE HATE this cover. I do not understand how a painting of a woman enjoying a whiff of her own armpit relates to the text. Besides, she looks somewhat happy and that just doesn't fit at all.]

Verdict: Personally, I'm okay with tossing it in the Rubbish Bin. I admire Nawal El Saadawi and her activism, but I didn't like this book.

Reading Recommendations: If you're interested in the subject, there are LOTS of excellent books out there about the complicated relationship between Islam and Feminism. I recommend Infidel and Reading Lolita in Tehran. Even The Bookseller of Kabul, which I didn't love, is still way ahead of God Dies on my list of recommendations.
But those are all nonfiction. Has anyone read a good piece of fiction that addresses these same issues? I don't think I have, but I'd like to.

Warnings: bestiality, statutory rape, necrophilia, murder

Favorite excerpts: Despite disliking the book, I did write this one excerpt in my book journal:
"Their voices joined in a high-pitched wail, as long as the length of their lives, reaching back to those moments in time when they had been born, and beaten and bitten and burnt under the soles of their feet, and in the walls of their stomach, since the bitterness flowed with their bile, and death snatched their sons and their daughters, one after the other in a line."

What I'm reading next: The Instructions, by Adam Levin (Yay! I've been wanting to crack this one open for a long while.)