Archive for June, 2012

Sunset Oasis

10 June 2012

Sunset OasisSunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Egyptian police officer Mahmoud Abd El Zahir is sent to administer the restive oasis community of Siwa in the late 1890s. He smells a rat, knowing that his English overlords have been suspicious of his role in a major uprising in 1881-82, led by Colonel Arabi or Urabi Pasha against the English, and the Khedive who had acceded to imperial rule.

That uprising is described later in the novel. A sickening mismatch of military power left the rebels in disarray. The bravest, the most far-seeing and generous-hearted layer of the population were mown down – killed off, or damaged internally, morally mangled afterwards as they betrayed each other to save their own lives, or at least denied all part in the rebellion. On the other hand the servile flourished. The foundations for 20th century Egypt were being laid. Mahmoud is one of those mangled – self-hating, deadened within.

Remarkably, he is married to a spirited Irishwoman, Catherine, who has appalled her peers by her choice of husband. A passionate Irish nationalist, she is also a classical scholar fascinated by the story of Alexander the Great, and the mystery surrounding his sepulchre; she wonders if it might have been moved to Siwa, and itches to inspect local relics. She also nurses her own emotional wounds from a failed former marriage. Relations are complicated further by the arrival of her sister, the saintly, frail beauty Fiona, who had once seemed destined to marry Catherine’s own former partner.

With its Berber population, Siwa regards Egyptian Arabs as colonists, quite apart from the English. Its population have a murderous hatred toward the outsiders who impose such heavy taxes. However, they are themselves bitterly factionalised.

For most of the novel Mahmoud manoeuvres between the different players in Siwa – half-heartedly, so little is he attached to life. Catherine wants to revive him, and their relationship, as well as explore her scholarly interests, her poetic sensitivity to the desert, and friendship with locals; but it is she who jars most heavily with the local culture and its brutal restrictions on women.

The theme of deadness is played out from many angles, and has appeared in the author’s other literary work. Perhaps that is not surprising in someone who lived through decades of Western-financed dictatorship in his homeland.

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The Handmaid’s Tale

10 June 2012

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale

Gilead is the fundamentalist dystopia that replaces the USA, in the bloodbath that follows a series of social and environmental disasters. The victorious Christian right takes on the character of sections of the Islamic right in parts of today’s Middle East. Women’s social status is hurled into the abyss. Fertility and the birthrate have collapsed. Few women can conceive, even fewer successfully.

Women are channelled into rigid castes with colour-coded apparel – the relatively privileged but infertile Wives; the Aunts, lieutenants weilding a level of authority, backed up by electronic cattle prods; working class Econowives; Unwomen sent to work to death in the poisoned land of colonies, African-American house-servants called Marthas; and Handmaids – fertile baby-makers, concubines of the patriarchal Commanders, but living day to day under the thumb of the Wives.

These are the early days of Gilead. People can still, inconveniently, remember their former lives in the USA. One of the stronger aspects of the book is its glimpses into how personal life changed during this time, seen from the perspective of a hitherto apolitical woman. The female protagonist recalls how she had been stripped first of her job and bank account (her money become the responsibility of her huband) and then, after a failed attempt to escape Gilead, stripped of her daughter and her own name. She is now the Handmaid Offred, “of Fred”, a Commander. There are many ideas to be corrected, facts to be suppressed. Terror is still more important than propaganda, with mutilated corpses of men and women on public display. Because political resistance continues, and she is caught up in it.

Apart from women, sexuality itself has been suppressed by extreme puritanism. Offred does what little she can to resist both: swinging her hips as she walks past guards in the street becomes a subtle act of defiance. The sexual act itself has become a bizarrely ritualised, joyless threesome of Wife, Commander and Handmaid – though needless to say the Commanders have other sexual outlets, pathetic and furtive though they may be.

The style of the novel is fragmentary, reflecting the smashing of cultural and personal life, the tight confinement of Offred’s existence, and her inner turmoil/deadness after the agony of losing her daughter.

The book was written in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution (which had begun so heroically with the smashing of the Shah’s revolting terror machine. For the mullahs, the suppression of the women’s movement was indeed the first tactical step in the process that ended with the destruction of more powerful oppoents, such as the independent workers’ committees in the oil industry. As I write this review, women protestors in Egypt are being brutalised by backers of the old regime). But the author reminds us of how much latent hatred against women still exists in the west, and how a deep crisis could bring it out.

[Spoiler alert]

An epilogue follows up on society long after the fall of Gilead, in which ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred’s secret account, is subjected to supercilious discussion at an academic conference. Clearly something close to the author’s heart, but it depressingly suggests that society can’t escape the pendulum swings between authoritarianism and neoliberal banality.

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The Robber Bride

9 June 2012

The Robber BrideThe Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Robber Bride I sometimes felt that I was eavesdropping on an intimate woman-to-woman talk. Yet the book is just as powerful and relevant for men. Dated in some details, but by no means in essentials, Robber Bride conveyed a real sense of dread at times.

Three midlife women have been bonded, for many years, through the common woe dealt to them by Zenia, a stunning beauty who ‘stole’ and then morally destroyed each of their male partners, and brought material damage to the women themselves. Years after attending her funeral they still feared her memory. Now they now discover that Zenia not only hasn’t died, but has recently made contact with the current men in their lives.

Roz is an earthy, practical-minded boss, Tony a cold-fish academic, Charis an intuitive, spiritualist hippie. Half-paralysed by anxiety, they now try to understand what is happening – to those around them, and inside their own heads – and take defensive action. Along the way we learn at length about the psychological damage they each received in their childhoods, and how it has shaped their later experience of Zenia. In fact their backgrounds take up a large part of the text.

The sociopathic aspect of Zenia is pretty clear – someone unencumbered by conscience or empathy, x-raying people to view the skeleton of their deepest drives, but entirely missing the beauty and soft appeal of their rounded personalities. She feeds only off challenge and victory and new kicks: for her a sustained relationship equals boredom, not the chance to grow close.

She is also of course a femme-fatale: in Zenia, the woman who defines herself in terms of the male gaze has sharpened herself into a deadly weapon. You start with a body that is socially defined as lovely; work on it; bring to bear all the tricks of charm; add insight, cunning, self-discipline, composure under pressure. Now supply the rationale, the excuse he needs to get past his conscience (you are vulnerable and need his help, for example), and you have him. Sex opens a mine-shaft to the inner psyche, which she knows how to explore. As sex-goddess Zenia becomes 90% of reality to her men. But this is all seen from a distance, from the perceptions of the three women and the apocryphal comments of Z herself.

Sex is not her only hook, and in the case of her female victims it is always some other longing – Zenia finds out whatever people yearn for, and finds a way to embody it. This we get in some detail (we see far more of various imagined Zenias than of the woman herself).

However she gets hold of you, once she has you you are gone. After that, any public hint that she is using you feels threatening, not because of what it says about her, but because it might displease her and have her withdraw from you. Her approval is everything. But the judgments she delivers to men and to women – once she has sucked them dry – are of the greatest brutality, resonating with the worst messages they have internalised from the past. She now walks the corridors of their dreams.

Even once they understand what she is, and hate her, they can’t help wanting to identify with, celebrate, even cherish her, thanks to her intense vitality and the passions she has summoned up in them.

The book is similar to Balzac’s Cousin Bette and Thackery’s Vanity Fair in having an evil female agent who works against a backdrop of male depravity and moral weakness; there are strong hints that this is the real problem to be addressed. The men are never seen from the inside; two of them remain almost entirely blank to us, though they all seem to end up with some kind of self-loathing. One of them, in the final break-up scene with his partner, gives a fine example of the malice that comes out when someone abandons their ideals.

A few reviewers have complained that the book demonises the ‘other woman’ and non-monogamous women generally. It could be used that way, though it is unlikely to be the author’s intention, given her support for female sexual expression in other contexts.

The book warns that high-minded thoughts and finer feelings draw their sap from dark roots: poison them and the whole tree sickens.

It is also very funny in parts. And there are the references to fairy tales and the supernatural – it really needs an extended review.

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