Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Novel, by Nawal El Saadawi
Reviewed by Tim Feeney
Trans. Omnia Amin and Rick London. Interlink Books, 2009. 236 pp. Paper: $15.00.
It's probably odd and not a little insulting to say that with The Novel, Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931), one of the leaders of Egypt's feminist movement and author of over thirty other books of fiction and nonfiction, has reached maturity as a novelist. Much of her earlier fictive work was characterized by a bluntness that worked well to convey outrage—El Saadawi has endured imprisonment, death threats, and exile, among other indignities far beyond what most of us will ever contend with, much of which features prominently in her work—but which made for less-than-graceful narrative art. The Novel, by contrast, may be the most elegant and ambitious of her ten novels. A mysteriously nameless young woman, with "no family, no university degree, no national identity card," writes a novel in spite of herself, having little idea of what she wants to write or how to do so. Once published, we're told twice, the novel causes tremendous outrage (as The Novel evidently did in the real world, though it’s tame by Western standards). Its protagonist is an affluent politician named Roustum, who seems to be at the center of both the young woman’s novel and The Novel. Lest it seem like El Saadawi is coming late to the metafiction party, she downplays standard self-referentiality in favor of a dreamy, disorienting landscape in which the relationships between characters are never quite clear, nor their motivations or abilities, as the young woman’s novel appears and spreads surreptitiously, yet loudly, through Cairo like uncertain magic. Unlike the hard-charging bleakness of some of her early work, here El Saadawi creates an impressionistic Cairo full of writers and poets, all more prosperous than many of her earlier characters but not at all the better for it.