Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Book Review: God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi

God Dies by the Nile is June's selection for the Classic Feminist Literature Challenge I've been working on. As it's only one hundred and thirty pages long, I finished it rather quickly, even though it was a very difficult book to read.

Part of that is due to my own cultural biases: not only am I American, but parts of my family have been here since before the Civil War (my mother's mother's family), before the Revolutionary War (my father's mother's family) and before any white people were here at all (my father's father's family). I don't say that to be American-er than thou, much as I enjoy offering to help racist, immigrant-hating white people pack their bags for their trip back to Europe, just that I haven't been exposed to any cultures other than my own and I don't hail from any fresh-off-the-boat groups. Beyond that, there's the issue of translation, which I have a long-standing beef with; it can be difficult to disentangle the words of the writer from the translator's interpretation of their words.

The remainder of my difficulties stem from the narrative style, which bears a strong resemblance to Toni Morrison's Beloved. While I enjoyed Beloved and God Dies by the Nile, both were somewhat incomprehensible due to the stream-of-conscious narration that jumped from character to character. Luckily for me, I read a lot of post-modernist literature, so that kind of thing doesn't throw or frustrate me. It just means I have to read some paragraphs a few extra times and flip through previous chapters to make sure I got the details right.

The similarities between God Dies by the Nile and Beloved don't stop there; thematically, the two are quite similar. God Dies by the Nile depicts an act of incredible violence perpetrated by a poor Egyptian women against the mixed-race, blue-eyed Mayor of her town, Kafr El Teen, who has sexually exploited both of her nieces and imprisoned her brother and son in order to conceal his actions. Beloved tells the story of an escaped slave woman who attempts (and succeeds, with one) to kill her children rather than subject them to the brutality of slavery. Both women, Zakeya and Sethe, live incredibly hard lives, surviving through their wits and hard, physical labor, and are constantly tormented by the inequalities that surround them. Both Morrison and Saadawi do an incredible job of rendering even the most violent, desperate acts understandable and those who commit them human.

As far as the feminist implications go (as I guess that's the point of reading this!), Saadawi manages to touch on a number of issues that affected Egyptian women in the 1970's, from FGM to sexual assault to having their lives and freedoms dependent upon the will of men. She also touches on the consequences of extreme abuses of power that stem from the divine right attitude that the Mayor and his cronies possess. It's easy to see how and why her writings landed her in jail; writing that threatens the status quo so obviously seldom goes unpunished, particularly in repressive regimes. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

4 out of 5 stars.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thoughts on the book. I agreed with you on seeing why those in power in Egypt were so against her works (and have been working on reading more by her and really enjoying it, though in different ways). I, too, had to really pay attention to follow who was speaking sometimes.

    This was a hard book to read and really exposes a lot of corruption and greed that I think isn't all that different, though much more extreme, from things that go on even in our own countries (thinking of politicians trying to hide their indiscretions and the women being blamed more than the men and etc).

    Oh, and I REALLY do have to read Beloved soon!