domingo, 9 de agosto de 2009

The Story of Zahra

The Story of Zahra [Hikayat Zahra] (Quartet Books, 1986)
by Hanan al-Shaykh (translated from the Arabic by Peter Ford "with the author's cooperation")
Lebanon, 1980

"We had grown used to the idea of a cease-fire at the beginning. We did not dare to think or believe that fighting meant war any more than a cease-fire meant peace." (The Story of Zahra, 106)

I'm not sure why exactly, but I'd half expected that I wasn't going to like this work very much. I was wrong. Oft cited as a classic of contemporary Arabic literature and an important work in international women's studies courses, Zahra pursues its troubled, mentally-disturbed title character from a dysfunctional home in southern Lebanon, on to Africa for a failed marriage, and back to Beirut where she suffers through the ravages of the Lebanese Civil War. Multiple narrators close to Zahra recount their interactions with the character, and Zahra herself bookends the accounts with her own pre-war memories of electroshock therapy and a harrowing account of her wartime "romance" with a rooftop sniper. While al-Shaykh does a tremendous job at bringing the horrors of war home with descriptions of the daily bombings in Beirut, she's equally adept at evoking the profound sense of interior trauma suffered by Zahra (note: I loved the fragmentary nature of the narrative--both the multiple points of view and Zahra's own instability as a witness--for reinforcing these feelings of disconnect). Throughout, one senses that the real horrors for the character aren't the war itself but rather the non-war sources of her own feelings of displacement and exile: the undiagnosed mental health issues that plague her, various abuses at the hands of men, her complicated responses to her own sexuality, and her role as an individual suffering within the stifling, patriarchal culture in which she was raised. That being said, for all the things I admired about the work, for all the interesting things it has to say about colonialism, gender relations and the like, the one thing I didn't care for was a rather big one: the ending. In fact, I'd probably have to read it again before deciding whether it was overly simplistic from a thematic standpoint or an unavoidably logical conclusion to everything that came before it. Bummer. (Quartet Books, London)

Hanan al-Shaykh

The Story of Zahra was self-published when it first came out because it was deemed too hot to handle by regional publishers. For a recent newspaper piece from Hanan al-Shaykh on her mother's life,
see "I Am Too Young to Marry" from The Guardian UK here.

This is my fifth book read for this year's Orbis Terrarum Challenge.
Next up: W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz (Germany), Mario Vargas Llosa's La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World], or ??? (???).

Another perspective: E.L. Fay (This Book and I Could Be Friends)

13 comentarios:

  1. This is the second time I read of someone not liking the ending to this book. Have not read it myself yet because I was a bit torn over something suggested here - gender issues being treated like a blunt instrument. Would you mind if I post this in as a guest review for the Lost in Translation challenge with a link back to you?

  2. Frances, I'd be honored if you used the post as a guest review! In terms of the gender issues in Zahra, I thought they were very organic given the nature of the story. The ending, on the other hand, was another matter altogether--much less convincing, from my point of view, than the rest of the work, which was quite good overall. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  3. Man thanks! It is up here:

  4. Siguiendo las recomendaciones de tú blog , he comprado los siete locos de arlt , espero que me deslumbre tanto como el juguete rabioso.
    Estuve averiguando y lanzallamas es la continuación de siete lcos , grandes lecturas por delante

  5. This sounds a difficult read for me. I have not yet read anything on these lines.

    I must check this one out.

    I am coming from the OT-09 blog.

  6. How unfortunate that the ending was a disapointment. It sounds like an interesting book overall. I am tempted to read it, and your reaction to the ending makes it kind of more intriguing, oddly enough. Thanks for the review!

  7. *Frances: No problem--thanks for the free publicity! Cheers!

    *Leox: ¡Estoy contento escuchar la noticia! Arlt me parece un tipo fascinante, y tengo ganas de leer más de el después de acabar con los Locos. ¡Saludos!

    *Veens: Although the subject matter can make it "difficult" at times, it's actually quick reading and a very good piece of writing. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment--I haven't been very good at that myself with the other Orbis reviewers lately, so it was a nice surprise to have you here for a "visit." Happy reading!

    *Sarah: It's a powerful work overall, but I just felt like the author missed a chance to "seal the deal" at the end. No big deal, I guess. Anyway, I'm glad my post didn't dissuade you from considering it because the novel has a lot of other goings for it. Cheers!

  8. Weird, I'm reading a sort of "women's studies classic" right now as well (Wide Sargasso Sea). I'm interested in your thoughts on this one; a non-organic ending is always a disappointment.

  9. It's hard to explain without going into the details, Emily, but let's just say that the ending seemed forced and lacking in all subtlety to me--a disappointment since the rest of the novel was entirely satisfying. Will be interested in hearing your thoughts on Sargasso when you get around to it. Cheers!

  10. I can't believe I've never heard of this book. I'm definitely going to have to pick up a copy. The issues it deals with seem interesting enough to overlook the disappointing ending.

  11. Al-Shaykh's book is very interesting, ruinedbyreading, and perhaps you'll enjoy the ending more than I did (it didn't work for me, but these are always matters of taste). Anyway, thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog! Cheers!

  12. Thanks for this - I'm always on the lookout for non-European works in translation. This sounds very interesting!

  13. E.L. Fay, no problem--thanks for the visit!