love in the kingdom of oil – Nawal El Saadawi

Well, it had to happen sometime.  I did not finish this book.  I have not suspended my reading of it, as happens with other books when the reading is hard for one reason or the other.  I have abandoned it.  This is new.  The custom has been, when faced with an impenetrable book, to persevere at all cost until the last page is read. This can be pure torture but that’s the type of reader I am.  Until now.  The environment and context might have contributed to this change; I attempted to read the book during the October 24 hour read-a-thon.  The limits and pressure of the read-a-thon translated into an unwillingness to nurse and struggle with the book. I’m not sure I shall continue with this new practice.  It is more likely that I will ‘regress’ to my previous stance.

love in the kingdom of oil (2001) begins with:

That day in September the news appeared in the newspapers.  Half a line of poor quality newsprint run off by the printers:

Woman goes on leave and does not return.

The woman is an archaeologist.  She has interests and works outside the home, an oddity in an unnamed authoritarian and repressive kingdom. She is “an ordinary woman who wouldn’t arouse in anybody a desire to rape her” and is considered narcissistic because she looks  at herself in mirrors.  Her preoccupation with finding goddesses is likened to a search for the penis.  This novella is a satire and the first chapter, in which a police officer interviews the men (husband, boss) in her life was a delight to read.   The story takes on a heavy surreal atmosphere when the disappeared woman appears.  Seems she took off with her chisel to a place where she hopes to find a goddess or two underground.  She arrives in a village, as old as time, which is surrounded and steeped in oil.  Even the clouds rain oil. Having escaped her husband, she nonetheless finds herself a prisoner of a man in this pre-historic oil- island, where the women carry urns on their head in the futile and never-ending task of keeping the oil from drowning them all.  Our archaeologist constantly plots her escape.  The imagery is dense; words and situations are repeated over and over again.  At times I felt as though I could not engage with the book because I was steeped in all the oil.  This, I thought, was a success.  However, the surrealism, the heavy, dense atmosphere, the feeling of getting lost in this opaque environment  got too much.  The oil, after all, is everywhere, the men are interchangeable, the women silenced.  I knew what El Saadawi was doing.  I’ve enjoyed her other writings against patriarchy and the oppression of women.  However overtly political her writing is, she always managed to deliver a narrative that I could enjoy.  love in the kingdom of oil is the exception.

On the translation:  I cannot fault the translation from the Arabic by Basil Hatim and Malcolm Williams.  The author’s intent was definitely evident.

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19 comments

  1. Sorry to know that you had to abandon this book, Kinna. It does look a bit heavy though and is definitely not a read-athon book. Hope you like other Nawal El Saadawi books you read. She is one of the writers I want to explore.

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    • For me, the struggle is learning to stop when I;m not enjoying the book. I do hope my new found courage sticks. Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment.

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  2. That imagery does sound very heavy indeed. From reading your post I really got the sense of drowning in oil! Thanks for the review – I’m planning to read something by El Saadawi soon, so will make it a different one.

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  3. Huh – this sounds really interesting. I might have to try it, despite your warnings! I haven’t read anything by El Saadawi, so if I can’t get into this one I won’t give up on her completely.

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  4. I used to suffer & read a book until the death, either its or mine, but now I’ve reached a stage in my life, when if it doesn’t engage me in anyway, it gets one chance & then it gets dropped, It’s the same with me my Blog, if I don’t like it, or if it just doesn’t say anything to me – I don’t post on it.

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  5. Ah, I felt a little bit lost while reading God Dies by the Nile; the story was kind of circular and I got a bit lost in it at times…but it sounds like this one is even less clear in that sense. Too bad…I actually really liked her writing, but I’m not so much a fan of that style. I don’t know though, as I really like surrealism sometimes!

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    • She does do the circular thing quite a bit. I think her aim is to drive the viscous circle that some women are in with regards to patriarchy and oppression.

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  6. You really make this sound fantastic, if difficult to read. Saadawi does atmosphere and mood so well, and you convey it so well in your post here as well. I’m a little nervous because you gave up on it, but am still intrigued enough to be on the lookout for it!

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    • All the comment here might cause me to pick up this book and give it a second try. It was not my intention to make it sound fantastic. But there it is. Book reviewing can have unintended consequences :).

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  7. Actually sounds like a book I’ll take an afternoon off to read. Your review makes it more appealing than you say it is. Thanks for sharing.

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