Asyah and Saif

Frank Kermode

  • In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif
    Bloomsbury, 791 pp, £15.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1163 2

This remarkable novel labours under what some might think serious disadvantages. First of all, at around four hundred thousand words it could be thought on the long side for a book principally concerned with the life of a PhD candidate from childhood to the age of thirty. This judgment could be disputed on the ground of generic precedent, the Bildungsroman habitually tending to length: but in these days blockbuster sizes tend to be associated either with the 19th century or with airport bookstalls, always excepting an occasional highbrow freak. However, respice finem; a fair reader will withhold condemnation on that score.

A more serious objection, for me at any rate, is that the long narrative is conducted in the historic present. Given that it violates a doubtless lazy expectation on the part of conventional readers, this device can, in a shorter run, be agreeably defamiliarising, but continued over eight hundred pages it tends to become tiresome. Moreover it creates avoidable problems in the handling of the pasts, so to speak, of the narrative present. Anything reported as just having happened requires an auxiliary verb, so that one has to learn to live with narrative language containing remarks like ‘She sips her drink. Meanwhile he has sat down ...’ There are numerous analepses loaded with pluperfects: ‘As the gates had closed behind them and they had started back down the path to where their car was parked, Asya had put her arm around Deena’s shoulders. Deena had pushed her spectacles back ...’ One might have said ‘car had been parked’, to have had a ‘had’ in every clause. There are dozens of examples, and the danger is that such sentences could call the wrong sort of attention to themselves. Problems are bound to arise.

Asya had sat on the stump of a tree and watched Deena talk to a bewildered-looking grey-haired lady ... She must be the mother of the other leftist: the independent, Asya had thought. Occasionally one of the black smocked women would walk up to the great wooden doors and bang on them and a small inset door would open and a guard would shout ‘Not yet, not yet. Patience is good.’ A small boy with a bucket had shown up and everyone had crowded round to buy Seven-Ups.

You have by now learned to put up with the ‘hads’, but what about the ‘woulds’? They aren’t, as it were, far enough back: but English offers no tense, no sort of continuous pluperfect, to register the sense of ‘had would’. The ‘must’ just gets by without needing to be ‘had must’, saved belatedly by ‘Asya had thought’. It is an objection that to be tempted into this kind of grammatical speculation doesn’t seem consistent with an invitation, certainly offered here, to indulge in a headlong read.

Yet, like so much else in the novel, the device, whether wholly successful or not, is the result of deliberation. Indeed it is the combination of scrupulous deliberation and formidable narrative energy that makes this such an impressive work. The heroine is a student of literature and her story contains a great many allusions to canonical Eng Lit, as well as to the popular songs of the time. Her thesis, at a Northern English university, is a linguistic study of metaphor, on the models of Brooke-Rose and Leech; we are provided with formidable samples of it, and it is sometimes woven into the texture as well as the action. Quite often this literary heroine is struggling not to behave as if in a novel: ‘Why had she said that?’ she asks herself. ‘Because it preserved the interest of the narrative? Kept her options open? Because it was true?’ ‘Ah, but this is her life: her life – not a book he’s writing.’ ‘This is life, not a novel, you can’t time things in life. This is how things happen.’ Here Asyah debates with her sensible husband and her mother.

‘I just think,’ says Asyah, ‘that if we could manage to look at real people and real actions with the same interest, the same – generous detachment, that we give to a novel or play we should – we should understand things better.’

‘But books and plays are the product of a conscious imagination,’ Lateefa says.

‘And so is life,’ Asyah says.

‘Up to a point,’ Saif says.

One doesn’t at all, however, feel that all this is just more of the old modern self-referentiality and so forth: the novel is actually interested in the ways in which it can contain a life, and also various ways of life; and it is part of its substance that Asyah struggles with the narrative of her own life, imposing upon her own history beginnings, endings and transitions essentially fictional; or resisting such impositions.

She comes of a family that is rendered in various ways as committed to continuities – an extended family with strong cultural characteristics and a most agreeable way of life. Her parents are professors at Cairo University. They form a small society still mildly and for the most part acceptably hierarchical, still comfortable as, all around, the structures of the larger world deliquesce. The ambience is peculiar yet definite: on a Moslem background a European way of life has been quite satisfactorily superimposed, creating a middle-class existence that is easy and still quite rich. The book is full of dense specification: the streets and sights of Cairo and Alexandria and other cities, the relations of the classes, the quality of life, including what have come to seem the highly repressive rules governing the conduct of young girls, are strongly registered. The disturbed and dangerous political history of Egypt and the Arab countries is kept before us – at the outset, the defeat of 1967 and the demise of Nasser, then the despised antics (as they are seen here) of Sadat; elsewhere, but not irrelevant, such events as the murder of King Faisal; repression at home, fear of a ruthless enemy abroad.

Meanwhile, in the little world of Asyah, it is possible to retain, perhaps difficult to avoid, even after 1956, an ambiguous love of England. The best schools are Anglophile, or even simply English. ‘A middle-aged spinster from Manchester came out to Cairo in the Thirties to teach English. A small, untidy 12-year-old girl fell in love with her and lived and breathed English literature from that day on. That girl was my mother, and here, now, am I ... It may be, a form of colonialism that no rebellion can mitigate, no treaty bring to an end.’

In a sense, then, Asyah is interesting as a type of cultural cross-breeding, deeply implicated in the Arabic language and in Moslem life, her close friends Egyptian. She is beautiful and decorative in the way of expensive Egyptian women, yet lives for Western books, Western music, Western life and Western freedom. In other respects she is entirely idiosyncratic – hysterical, narcissistic, naive. Her life as here recounted is certainly unusual. After a long and chaste courtship she marries likeable and clever Saif. But when he discovers that his attempt to deflower her causes great pain he gives up, though somehow manages at one point to make her pregnant. She miscarries. She tries to remedy the coital problem with a prosthetic penis, but this attempt apparently also fails. Sex now disappears from her life, and she goes to England to take her PhD a virgin, though a wife of several years. It has not occurred to Saif that she might have come to suppose him indifferent to her, or that she might take a lover; she does so, even imagining Saif wouldn’t mind, and lives with a selfishly emotional and exploiting Englishman, whom she hardly likes but from whom she cannot break, simply because he has given her the sex she has had so long to do without. Saif knows a bit about this relationship but imagines that it doesn’t involve full sex. When he finds out, he breaks with her.

It happened that I recently read Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, a book about pathological jealously in which the condemned woman is perfectly innocent and the husband knows it, but construes her supposed disobedience in what might seem a trivial matter as equivalent to adultery. What makes it so strange a book – what gives it real distinction – is that it has to be entirely silent about the sexual fantasies of the jealous husband: he is, as it were, not entitled to have any, and knows it, yet he still suffers all the pains of what Trollope calls monomania. What helps to give In the Eye of the Sun its equally real and startling distinction is that on this matter of male jealousy, as on practically everything else, it is completely explicit. Soueif’s dialogue is expert throughout, but the scenes between husband and wife after the discovery are horrifyingly so. And even the most trivial marital quarrel is often quite anguishing as well as on occasion quite funny, as when Sail drives round and round Hyde Park Corner (1975 – long before the traffic lights arrived) and refuses to exit until she, charged with navigating, will tell him which way to go. She has no idea, and is in any case equally stubborn. These spats are never recounted because of their amusing triviality: they are highly relevant to the extremely strange and loving relationship under examination. One difference between this book and your average blockbuster is that one hardly ever – even in the detailed sex scenes, even during gynaecological examinations – feels that there is real irrelevance or gratuitousness. The title is from Kipling’s ‘Song of the Wise Children’, a category which one may suppose includes Asya. In the Epilogue we find her contemplating a newly unearthed statue of the period of the great Rameses, ‘delivered back into the sunlight still in complete possession of herself’. The scene is rendered with the usual plausibility – Asyah is led by naughty children to a prohibited place, forbidden to use her camera, etc – but one knows enough about Asyah, and her author, by this time to interpret such an emblem, and such an ending, without difficulty. If there is a note of triumph (for each of them) in both emblem and ending, one can happily agree that they have earned it.