The Review--One Recent Release and One Classic Revisited
November/December 2005 Edition

Two Women in Death's Shadow
Reviewer: Stedman Mays

Recent Release
Book Cover of SKY BURIAL by XinranSKY BURIAL--An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran. With a Foreword by the Author. Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2005 (originally published in Great Britain in 2004 by Chatto & Windus). Hardcover. 206 pages of very sparsely laid-out text.  Estimated length: fewer than 47,000 words.

Death in the upheavals of our war-torn and terrorist-torn world is an all too common phenomenon. As I write this, I'm reading about death tolls in the news every day. We all see the headlines and hear the numbers, but the actual human beings who died often get lost behind the constant litany of statistics. Even the faces of the deceased in the fleeting snapshots on TV seem to become a blur.

In SKY BURIAL--An Epic Love Story of Tibet, the Chinese author Xinran has created a novel based on the true story of an alleged casualty of war. Xinran, while working as a journalist, met a strange elderly Chinese woman named Shu Wen, who wore the garb of a Tibetan. Shu Wen told Xinran her story over the course of two days in 1994. Shu Wen had searched for three decades for her supposedly dead husband, Kejun, who had left her behind in China in the late 1950s--Kejun had gone to Tibet after being summoned by the Chinese army to serve as a doctor during the Chinese-Tibetan conflict, which was raging at the time (China was waging war against the Tibetan forces fighting for independence). After having been married to her husband for less than a hundred days, Shu Wen received an elliptical death notice stating,

“This is to certify that Comrade Wang Kejun died in an incident in the east of Tibet on 24 March 1958, aged 29."

Most of the book is about Shu Wen's three-decade-long search to find out what exactly happened to her husband. Frustrated by the lack of information given her by the local Chinese authorities, Shu Wen herself enlists as a doctor (she and her husband had met in medical school) with military forces headed for Tibet, in the hopes of finding Kejun alive. After reaching Tibet and joining her military unit, she soon becomes lost after narrowly escaping a deadly confrontation with Tibetan nationalists.

Left to wander in an alien country where she doesn't even speak the language, she is soon taken in by a nomadic Tibetan family that kindly welcomes her as one of their own. She moves from place to place with the family depending upon the season. She lives off the land with them, according to their customs. She is taught by a Tibetan friend who speaks Chinese about the traditions of her adopted country. The title SKY BURIAL refers to the Tibetan tradition of laying the dismembered remains of the dead on an open air altar to be devoured by vultures, a tradition that may seem repugnant and barbaric to us but which is symbolic for the Tibetans of organically transporting the spirit of the dead to a lofty realm of spiritual transcendence. Slowly she learns a different way of life and a different kind of spirituality, all the while keeping an eye open for any possible news of her husband's whereabouts, if he's still alive, or more specifics about how he died.

What she ultimately finds out when she solves the mystery of her husband's disappearance is one of the most fascinating revelations that you're likely to read in any book. I wasn't prepared for it, and I don't want to say anything further to spoil it for anyone who reads the novel. But trust me, you won't be disappointed.

I have several problems with the book, however. First, I was disoriented by the fact that nothing is mentioned on the cover, the title page, the flap copy, in the the author's foreword or the acknowledgments to indicate that this is a novel, a work of fiction--then if you happen to glance at the copyright page, in small type you are shocked by the announcement:

“This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental."

Excuse me? What's going on here? Is the story true, or is it made up? Or both? I'm confused.

I think that Shu Wen's story is based on actual interviews, but then the author Xinran does tell us that Shu Wen disappeared suddenly without a trace only two days after they met. I suppose Xinran was therefore forced to reconstruct the story as best she could, without additional help and clarification from Shu Wen. That would explain the disclaimer on the copyright page that the book is a work of fiction, even though the packaging of the book would lead us to believe that it's a true story (the cover does say that it's an "epic" love story, but the term epic can describe true stories as well as fictional ones). At any rate, it's not proper in my opinion to omit the fact that the story is fictionalized from the cover, the title page, the foreword, and the acknowledgments. Xinran should say a word or two about how she fictionalized a true story. It should be explicit. It's not fair for the reader to have to guess. And the copyright page language saying, "This book is a work of fiction...", should be modified accordingly, to reflect that the story is at least inspired by fact or based on the actual personal testimony of Shu Wen. This kind of sloppy oversight--by an author who has worked for years as a journalist and by a major publisher--is disappointing (and if it wasn't an oversight and it was done on purpose for some reason, that's even worse).

The next problem I have is that something is missing from the part of the book that describes the long period of time that Shu Wen spent living with the generous and warm Tibetan family. We don't hear enough about why she seemed to rather passively live with them for decades and think less about her husband's whereabouts. One would think that Shu Wen could have told us more about what kinds of thoughts she was having about her husband during this period. After all, she came to Tibet to find him, that was her purpose. We need to learn more about her frustrations, her anxieties, her yearning, or at a bare minimum we need to be told how she's evolving psychologically in greater detail, even if she is in fact temporarily relegating her husband to the back of her mind as she forges a new life for herself in the wilderness of Tibet.

And sometimes I found myself wanting a greater sense of the passage of time and how she felt as she was getting older. It's hard to follow how much or how little time was passing in much of the book. I'm not asking that the book hit you over the head with an academic chronology, of course. I just wanted a few more markers of precisely how much time was going by.

Despite my cavils, don't miss SKY BURIAL. The publisher has created a gorgeously designed book--the imagery on the cover is quietly majestic, and the text is beautifully laid out and a pleasure to read. SKY BURIAL is a gem of a love story. It's a tale of self-sacrifice and redemption that restores your faith in human beings. And, with an ending worthy of the great ancient and Renaissance dramatists, SKY BURIAL cries out to be filmed.

Classic Revisited
Book Cover of WOMAN AT POINT ZERO by Nawal El SaadawiWOMAN AT POINT ZERO by Nawal El Saadawi. Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata. With a Preface by the Author. Zed Books, 1983 (original copyrighted Arabic edition published in 1975). Paperback. 108 pages of the text of the novel; 112 pages including the Author's Preface. Estimated length of the novel: about 36,000 words.

The Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi is a trailblazing pioneer of feminism in the Arabic world. Born in 1931 in a small village outside Cairo, she received a medical degree and became a practicing psychiatrist, health researcher, and teacher. She's a prolific writer of nonfiction books and articles as well as novels. Her outspoken views on the oppression of women and the poor have caused her to lose important jobs in her native country and have even landed her in prison.

In WOMAN AT POINT ZERO, Nawal El Saadawi has taken the case of Firdaus--the real name of a woman incarcerated on death row in Egypt--and created a fictionalized version of her life story (El Saadawi actually met the woman while conducting psychological research on female prison inmates). Firdaus, the novel's heroine (or perhaps I should say "anti-heroine"), tells her story from her own point of view, in first person.

Firdaus starts at the beginning--we hear about her upbringing on a primitive farm with a mud-hut dwelling in a small Egyptian village. Her parents die and she is orphaned as a young girl. Firdaus then is taken to live with her uncle in Cairo. There she excels as a student and receives her secondary school certificate (similar to a high school degree in the U.S.A.) with honors. But she lives in a loveless home, with little emotional support and encouragement. Her uncle refuses to send her to a university because he doesn't want to pay the expenses for it out of his meager salary as a government official, nor does he approve of the idea of her "sitting side by side" with men in classes. The young woman is also seen as a burden by her uncle's wife, who resents having to be a parent to a child who is not her own flesh and blood. So at eighteen years of age Firdaus is promptly married off after graduating to a petty, abusive older man who is angry about the fact that he has to pay for groceries for both himself and his wife. She is basically treated like a slave who cooks, cleans, and satisfies her husband's desires, all the while suffering one put-down after another. Aside from being emotionally and psychologically abused, Firdaus is horribly beaten by her husband. Desperate--with no one to turn to--she takes to the streets to escape the unbearable situation.

The rest of the novel is about her attempts to forge an independent existence for herself under very difficult conditions. Firdaus drifts in and out of prostitution, making enough money selling her body to live in a nice apartment and buy the things she wants. But she derives no pleasure from the sexual acts she performs and she's unhappy. She decides to get a job as a secretary in an office in an effort to change her way of life.  Her one stab at a "respectable job" is so low-paying, however, that she quits and goes back to selling her body, now for much larger sums of money.

Against her will, she falls under the sway--under the supposed "protection"--of a powerfully connected pimp who forces her to share her profits with him and tries to control her every move. We are told near the beginning of the book (and on the book's back cover) that she murdered the man, so it comes as no surprise near the end of the story, but we only learn the details of exactly what catapulted her to do it in the final scene.

Her murder of the pimp, for which she will be hanged, is a symbolic act of defiance against a sexist, male-dominant culture that seeks to enslave women. Firdaus thus feels triumphant after committing the crime. She is victorious and entirely unrepentant. 

As she tells her story, the narrative is explicitly ideological.  We are told repeatedly about the evils of a chauvinistic society that relentlessly disempowers all women in one way or another. Firdaus dreams of becoming "a doctor, or an engineer, or a lawyer, or a judge...a great leader or head of state." But the odds are stacked against her. "A woman's life is always miserable," she explains. The prose of A WOMAN AT POINT ZERO is unadorned--almost spartan--and the sentiments are often coldly philosophical. As a reader, I felt as if Firdaus had become numbed to all feeling, as if her beaten down spirit had only survived the multitude of heinous wrongs committed against her by dissociating from the world around her. She's built a wall of numbness around herself to ease the pain and protect herself from being emotionally wounded any further.

And yet while reading the novel I found myself wanting to identify with her more on a visceral emotional level. I was frustrated by the repetitiousness of the abstract ideological philosophizing in parts of the book. I wish there had been less of it and more about the specific day-to-day details of Firdaus's life. I wanted to get to know her better. I wanted to experience what she had been through rather than hear her opinions about it. And many of the supporting cast of characters are similarly distant and vaguely sketched and therefore didn't engage me as deeply as they might have.

My favorite scene in the book is one of the most personal. Firdaus as a young girl overhears her uncle and his wife having sex. The wall between the married couple's room and the room where Firdaus sleeps on a sofa is paper-thin. The couple proceeds to have sex even though Firdaus's aunt tells her husband "no" when he starts to make advances. Firdaus listens to the "two heavy bodies locked in a struggle, alternately closing in on one another and separating in a continuous movement...gradually shifting to a strangely rapid, almost frenzied rhythm." Eventually Firdaus describes her own vicarious reaction to the scene going on in the other room, a scene she can hear but not see: "I felt my body vibrate with the sofa, my breathing grew more rapid, so that after a while I also started to pant with the same strange frenzy. Then slowly, as their movements subsided their respiration grew quiet again, and I gradually became calmer. My breathing resumed its normal slow regularity, and I dropped off to sleep with my body bathed in a pool of sweat." It's a memorable passage of a young person's sexual yearning and the secret thrill of eavesdropping on people making love. It's also troubling that Firdaus is being aroused by a scene in which a woman is being forced to have sex without her consent, signifying how the pervasive sexist norms permeate a young person's psyche. The only way Firdaus can finally break the pattern of male control is by the direst of means.

So I suppose you could say I'm of two minds about WOMAN AT POINT ZERO. On the one hand, the agitprop is overbearing and needlessly repetitious. I wish the author had spent less time preaching and more time involving the reader in the story. On the other hand, WOMAN AT POINT ZERO is a compact tale that packs a punch and has a number of intriguing passages. At its best, the story is gritty and punishing and grimly triumphant in the lead character's fearless embrace of "the darkest of ends" on the gallows.

Unfortunately, the edition of WOMAN AT POINT ZERO from Zed Books that I read is not of high quality. It's poorly designed and the text needs to be proofread again for errors. There are too many typos, and occasionally the translation seems incorrect or awkward (I am not able to read Arabic, so I couldn't read the original, but my instincts tell me that modification of the English translation in certain spots would improve the flow of the narrative for the English-language edition). Nawal El Saadawi is a provocative and historically important author and thinker--she deserves to be published with greater care.
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