BOOK REVIEW / A maze made of soft, shaded paths: 'In the Eye of the Sun' - Ahdaf Soueif: Bloomsbury, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AHDAF SOUEIF's second novel can in many ways be seen as a 'portrait of the artist as a young woman' - an Egyptian woman called Asya. But where Stephen Dedalus had to free himself from the bonds of religion, homeland and family before he could present his purified self at the altar of art, Asya has different shackles. She grows up in a bourgeois, intellectual and secular milieu, and is immersed from a young age in Western culture through reading and travel. In common with her class in the confident, pre-fundamentalist Egypt of the 1960s, she appears to have no problems with God (despite the lengthy quotations from the Koran in the novel, which are there only for artistic, if somewhat cumbersome, juxtaposition). Nor does she have a problem with her loving and all-the-way supportive family.

Indeed, as a teenager growing up in a society which frowned upon pre-marital sex for women, the restraints on her were so relaxed that she managed regular private assignations for years with her intended, not to mention co-habition with him in Beirut and London during summer holidays.

As for her homeland, Asya grows up in the heyday of Nasser's era, only to see her idol fall from grace in 1967, following Egypt's defeat in the war with Israel. The war is documented in the novel (and so is the later one of 1973) through the detached citation of military communiques. Why the author chooses to interrupt the narrative in this bizarre way is not clear. Politics, in any case, remains peripheral to the novel. There are attempts to make the public and the private converge, as when Asya's uncle's car is crushed during the build-up to the war between two recklessly-driven army trucks - a premonition of the fate that the whole nation is to suffer.

But it stops at this level - the turbulent politics of the Middle East never seriously penetrate the texture of the narrative, beyond the surface crust of record-keeping. In the Eye of the Sun is essentially a private novel, and it is in her painstaking and unremitting probing of her heroine's feelings that Ms Soueif's creative passion shows itself at its best.

Asya's quarrel, then, is not with religion, family or homeland. Instead it is from love - a great love so powerful it stifled her individuality and her womanhood - that she struggles to free herself. After a passionate love story which lasted throughout her undergraduate years, Asya, beautiful, intelligent, successful and well-placed in society, marries Saif, a charming man with a brilliant career and every bit her match, though eight years her senior.

But on her wedding night Saif, always loving and considerate, gives up his attempts to deflower her when the pain proves too much for her to bear. Readers will be pushed to accept that the suffering and heartache of the next 500-odd pages all germinated in that one moment on that particular night. Every time Saif tried later, Asya, whose body actually ached with desire for him, coiled over herself with fear of pain. He finally gives up and she remains a virgin wife.

The love, the loyalty and the mutual devotion continue. But two years later, the circumstances of their respective careers force them to live apart; his business is based in the Middle East, while she comes to Britain to study for her PhD - they meet only occasionally for holidays. Increasingly frustrated at her loneliness and her unfulfilled womanhood, Asya indulges in a sexually gratifying relationship with an English student at her university. Saif cannot live with the idea, so they part, still in love.

Now this is not as trite as the summary may make it sound. Ms Soueif's analysis of her heroine's consciousness is remarkable. Consider, for example, her exploration of Asya's sexuality:

'She whispers, 'No,' but his fingers continue their slow, gentle, teasing search. She had never known there was so much scope for searching down there: a miniature maze where you could wander for a lifetime, a maze of soft, shaded paths and a hundred hiding-places all longing to be discovered. She wants him to go on for ever, for ever - but there, there is the centre, there, is where where she most wants him to be. . .'

This may not raise anything but a chuckle among Ms Soueif's English readership; but it would raise hell if it were written in Arabic, the writer's native tongue. Ms Soueif differs from, for instance, Nawal El Sadaawi, who writes thesis-novels to illustrate the plight of the unemancipated Middle Eastern woman. Ms Soueif has written an aesthetic novel whose central preoccupation happens to be the feminine nature.

In the Eye of the Sun is a complex and rich novel, but it has one serious flaw: the sexual estrangement of the loving couple as it is shown defies credibility - how can a couple so sophisticated, so articulate, so enamoured and so respectful of each other fail to sort out such a problem for seven married years? On the other hand, there seems to be a symbolic dimension to the dilemma. In their respective portrayals, Saif appears to stand for reason; for a cool and definitive outlook on things, whereas Asya seems to stand for passion; the unbridled urge to know, to discover, to experience and err and be human. Asya's final rejection of Saif may thus be seen as a celebration of the ultimate triumph of the life force over rational thought. But we cannot say that the whole sexual situation is symbolic of the impotence of reason before passion. It was Asya's obsessive fear, not Saif's impotence, that caused the trouble. The realistic and symbolic levels do not converge.

Part of the responsibility for this doubtless rests with Ms Soueif's apparent unwillingness to allow us a genuine look into Saif's mind. We are given a few direct glimpses, but these amount to some 20 pages in italics out of a total of nearly 800. Ms Soueif has perhaps allowed herself to identify disproportionately with her heroine - a hazard always present in fiction deeply anchored in autobiography.

The novel is a remarkable achievement nevertheless. After two works in this strain, the cathartic effect of recollective and reconstuctive writing must be near complete - Ms Soueif's fiction can now only move further and further away from the contemplation of the self. One looks forward to her next, post-emancipatory novel.

(Photograph omitted)

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