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.