The Feminist Press, £11.99, 176pp. £10.79 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Revenge: A Fable, By Taslima Nasrin, trans. Honor Moore with Taslima Nasrin
Friday 19 November 2010
Literature brims with stories of vengeance which invariably unravel to a tragic end. Taslima Nasrin revisits the overwhelming emotions of self-righteous rage that lead wife to right wrongs against husband, but the outcome is not the cataclysmic one we may have come to expect.
In this story of newly-weds negotiating the shock of their new, joined up lives in modern Bangaldesh, Nasrin explores a brutal kind of revenge which is enacted surreptitiously, within the strictures of a marriage, without leading to its end.
Jhumur, the novel's spirited young wife and narrator, has just moved from her parental home to live with her husband Haroon's extended family. The two sides of Bangladesh, and the gulf in between, are presented in the differences between the homes. Haroon's is a harsh, rigid one, strictly guided by patriarchal structures, while Jhumur's mother and father embody a more liberal ideology that abides by the universals of love and kindness, and leads them to love their daughters as if they were sons.
Their marriage has not been arranged – they have fallen in love after a heady romance - and Jhumur imagines life will continue as harmoniously. Yet once the transition from independently-minded girlfriend to respectable Muslim wife has been made, she is burdened with the oppressive duties of the new role while Haroon is, for his part, transformed into a stern, distant husband.
The narrative quickly builds to the central betrayal after she falls pregnant and is forced to have an abortion by Haroon, who doubts her pre-marital fidelity. Jhumur begins her quiet payback by living out her husband's false fears and beginning a sexual liaison with a handsome neighbour, hoping to fall pregnant.
She conducts the affair with the difficult knowledge that her anger towards Haroon cannot diminish her love for him, yet she can only rest when her revenge is complete. In this task, she maintains supreme focus. A less steely protagonist might have become waylaid by the sexual thrills experienced in her arms of her lover or allowed her anger to overwhelm her. She triumphs by playing out her role as the respectable wife, while giving birth to an illegitimate child. Her husband gains no insights into her sense of injury nor her revenge.
Yet it is for this reason that the happy ending sits uncomfortably. Nasrin's inversion of the expected narrative arc of a revenge story is clever enough, but it leaves her heroine's integrity compromised. We are drawn into Jhumur's turbulent inner world, and invited, to some degree, to overlook the moral fog that surrounds her calculated act of betrayal. "This child was a protest, a way of taking revenge and its being infused with the pain and suffering of all the women I knew," she says.
Perhaps Nasin, a Bangladeshi exile who has incurred a fatwa for inflammatory works that challenged traditional Islamic values, suggests here that a less flamboyant rage – as sly as it seems in the novel – is more practical than the confrontational approach that has left her an outcast from her homeland.
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