Book Review / Man, woman and Satan make three: 'The Well of Life' - Nawal El Saadawi, Tr Sherif Hetata: Lime Tree, 13.99

A MOTHER abandons her new- born baby beside a river. He stretches out his tiny hands in an image of supplication that is to haunt her for the rest of her life. Another infant, conceived in violence and ignorance, dies at a milkless breast, forcing her mother closer to disintegration.

The doctor inside this Egyptian novelist is never off duty. Saadawi's compassionate presence hovers over her characters, records every symptom and attempts to limit the pain as she assesses the chances of recovery.

These two novellas apparently tell the stories of two individual Arab women. Ain is forced into an arranged marriage with a sick old man. She leaves him when her friendship with a prostitute awakens her to her true identity as Ain El Hayah, the well of life of the title. But she is hounded into deserting her child and spends the rest of her life searching for him. In The Thread Dawlat becomes caught in a painful cycle of reincarnation after her beloved father dies.

For these are also universal symbols of the pain of being a woman in a sick society. Arab women are trapped in a world where their allure is prized while its power is dreaded. There is an Arab saying that 'whenever a man and woman meet together, their third is always Satan' and Saadawi's female characters are the product of this fear of fitna, the dread that female seductiveness will destroy society.

Ain and Dawlat come from a long line of sufferers from the Sick Woman Syndrome. They are the modern Arab equivalent of all those repressed Victorian ladies fainting on to their sofas. Dawlat, especially, could be a direct descendant of the haunted woman.

Anyone else would be accused of over-simplification for presenting a world where sexual intercourse is almost invariably an act of violence. In Saadawi's world men are mostly hairy, brutish creatures. Occasionally they have a gentle, caressing manner, which only makes the eventual exposure of their hidden sadism more shocking.

But the power of real experience lies behind her words. Saadawi was brutally circumcised at six. As an adult she was imprisoned and deprived of status for her political statements. She has spent years trying to repair the psychological damage done, especially to women, by poverty and oppression.

Her characters act out codes as basic as in the Westerns where good guys wear white hats and the baddies always dress in black. Here, for sex appeal read black, shining eyes. Anyone with compassion and wisdom is signalled by descriptions of eyes brimming with unshed tears. While if a veil or mist disappears from before any pair of eyes you can be sure a revelation is on the way.

Somehow the repetition of such simple phrases escapes banality. In The Thread chains of refrains build up to a poetic pitch, the words almost demanding to be read out loud. While Saadawi's tales are far removed from the false exoticism of those in A Thousand and One Nights, they have a fantastic quality of their own. She gives the prosaic experiences of everyday life an unsettling strangeness.

We first encounter Ain inside her mother's womb and are offered the unusual perspective of the pain of the one being born. The man who is to become Dawlat's first lover is introduced as a disembodied shoe, which is then built up into a human identity. One of the most memorable images is of this pair gyrating around each other as they descend a narrow spiral staircase. They pant and sweat and their clothes become torn in vivid parody of the sexual act.

The absence of any definite sense of time or space heightens the effect. Situations go on forever, while only lasting a moment. Dawlat's experience of being reborn encompasses her whole life but she notes that by the clock only seven minutes have elapsed.

The distilled suffering makes for disturbing reading. It leaves a sense of a report sent back from a remote war zone. Like the creative attempts to record First World War atrocities, this extraordinary testimony to domestic horrors demonstrates that once again 'the poetry is in the pity'.