Novels coming out of Saudi Arabia are few and far between. If they are being written at all, they are apparently not being translated into English. It’s of immediate interest, then, that not one but two of these debuts is set in Saudi Arabia. Sulaiman Addonia, the author of The Consequences of Love, is not, however, a native Saudi. Like Naser, the narrator of his novel, he lived in Jeddah during the 1980s as a child refugee from Eritrea. His heartfelt story of illicit love takes place twenty years ago but there is no reason to suppose that the stifling social and sexual mores at its centre have been liberalised in any way.
Naser falls passionately in love with the wearer of a pair of pink shoes on the basis of a glimpse of a slender ankle and the exchange of clandestine notes. He has been yearning for warmth and closeness with a woman ever since he was separated from his loving and sensual African mother at the age of ten. The mounting sexual tension between Naser and the unseen object of his desire, ‘Fiore’, just about keeps the narrative afloat, but the real suspense lies in what Naser will find underneath her voluminous black abaya (beauty or beast) and in what terrible punishment (public flogging or stoning to death) will be meted out to the young lovers if they are caught by the sinister, ever-vigilant religious police. Concealment and danger are universal erotic triggers. What’s so interesting about Addonia’s novel, though, is that it shows a man suffering from the consequences of the repression of women. When the adolescent Naser takes a job in a café, he is expected, to his horror, to grant sexual favours to the older male clientele – yet talking to or flirting with a woman in public is a criminal activity. The frustration and loneliness he experiences living in a male-orientated world are powerfully depicted, as are the inertia, corruption and hypocrisy that flourish when morality is regulated by the state.
Addonia’s Saudi Arabia, far from being a spiritual Mecca, is a cruel, materialistic and frightening place. Zoe Ferraris, an American once married to a Saudi, also sets her detective novel The Night of the Mi’raj in Jeddah. Her hero, Nayir, a simple, devout sort, is a Palestinian desert guide who becomes enmeshed in a web of sexual intrigue when the search he is leading for a friend’s sister, who is lost in the desert, turns into a murder investigation. Sixteen-year-old Nouf’s disappearance inevitably carries a whiff of scandal about it, particularly as she is just about to be married. In a society where a woman’s sexuality is not her own affair, Nouf’s wealthy family are reticent about their missing daughter. The younger members of the family spend more time in the shopping mall than the mosque and, like the extremely rich everywhere, believe themselves above the law. The investigation is also hindered because Nayir can’t question the female members of the family alone. He enlists the help of Nouf’s brother’s fiancée, who is, unusually, a forensic scientist (men can’t examine female corpses), and for the first time in his life enjoys an equal and open relationship with a woman. As he comes closer to discovering the truth about Nouf, Nayir’s individual conscience comes into conflict with the prevailing religious morality. These cultural peculiarities add some interesting twists to the genre, though you can’t quite envisage Nayir becoming a Saudi Arabian Precious Ramotswe. Both these last two novels are promising debuts: they are well plotted and lucidly written, and confirm all our worst prejudices.
Mohammed Hanif’s debut takes us to the more familiar literary terrain of Pakistan and another mysterious death. A Case of Exploding Mangoes is an exuberant romp through the minefield of recent Pakistani history and politics, focusing on the supposedly accidental death of the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in a plane crash in 1988. The narrator, Ali Shigri, scion of a distinguished military family, is a wisecracking, irreverent junior officer who finds himself hauled off to a dungeon to be interrogated when his fellow cadet, the poetically-inclined Obaid, goes AWOL in a military plane. This narrative is interwoven with the countdown to Zia’s final days and an exploration of some of the conspiracy theories surrounding his demise. There are the usual suspects – the CIA, the Bhutto family, the Indians, the Russians – and just possibly a certain officer Shigri intent on avenging the death of his father, or even a mango-eating crow carrying a curse. While there are lots of good jokes at the expense of the increasingly paranoid and unhinged dictator and his incompetent and craven generals, the narrative strands fail to mesh together sufficiently to create a viable plot, a serious deficiency in a novel billed as a political thriller in the mould of John le Carré. Hanif’s novel, entertaining though it is, is almost entirely lacking in suspense, and is really an indulgently playful satire in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Shame.
Coincidentally, a large black crow is also a motif in The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, but while there is wry humour, here there are few jokes. Bakker’s novel is the embodiment of sober Calvinist restraint, yet is intensely moving and compelling. A sympathetic portrayal of middle age, it’s a quiet, subtle study of how emotional repression can be destructive of lives too.
Helmer Van Wonderen reluctantly takes over the running of the family farm when his identical twin brother, Henk, is killed in a car accident. Henk’s beautiful bride-to-be, Riet, was behind the wheel of the car, which plunged into the dyke, drowning the favoured son who was destined to take on his father’s mantle. We meet our narrator Helmer in middle age, unmarried, caring for his tyrannical but now bedridden father, and enjoying something of a new lease of life. He’s redecorated the family home according to his own minimalist taste and, while still entrenched in the routines of life on the farm, he’s reflecting on the sacrifices he’s made. It’s at this point, thirty years on, that Riet resurfaces and asks Helmer to take on her difficult teenage son, also named Henk. Helmer enters into a complex relationship with the boy which forces him to confront his feelings for his dead twin. Helmer, however, has had enough of other people’s expectations and finally and unpredictably breaks free from his emotional shackles. These psychological dramas, executed in elegant, controlled prose, unfold against the backdrop of a flat and unchanging landscape which makes them all the more vivid.