I waited a long time to get my hands on Nawal El Saadawi’s novel The Innocence of the Devil. I was interested in reading a novel by a contemporary Arab feminist/doctor/writer, and I also thought that this novel would be a nice addition to my exploration of the devil in literature. This review is the sixth installment of my “The Devil is a Woman” series.
In its most basic incarnation, The Innocence of the Devil is a study in repetition and the role that repetition plays, not only as a literary device but also as a way of forming — and deconstructing — hegemonic systems. El Saadawi is most invested in examining the constructs of gender difference from a religious standpoint, particularly in the context of madness. The tale uses repetition as a way to articulate the “madness” of the main character: a three-prong personality, like “the father, son, and holy spirit.” Her name is Ganat, Nefissa, and/or Narguiss. Each personality has its own (repetitious) reflection of her life as a woman in Arabic society. Ganat, for example, was born with her eyes open. She walks with her head held high, barfoot like Jesus, and never falters physically or emotionally in the face of torment and injustice. Nefissa has red sexuality and desire; Narguiss reverts most often to a childlike state of mind: wonder, fear, or nervousness.
The Ganat/Nefissa/Narguiss trinity is a patient at The Yellow Palace — and insane asylum — where she receives shock treatments frequently in order to erase her memory. Her memory, it seems, is the source of her position as a public threat: “she remembers everything that has happened for five thousand years.” The memory is the weapon — she cannot forget how she has been treated by others such as her grandfather, her lover, or her mother. In each series of memories –which become confused or disjointed, or merged with beautiful dream-like imagery — she maintains authenticiy of herself (which is a strange thing because G/N/N is already so severed and mutilated).
To complicate matters that are already murky, El Saadawi suggests that G/N/N is not only the embodiment of a female holy trinity but is also the incarnate of the devil. At first, I wondered if she were polarizing the two — good and evil. But, she really wants to show how good and evil are one and that these are best articulated through a close examination of the position of women in Arabic society.
G/N/N is the holy trinity yet she is also Eblis, the devil, who, like her is an inmate of the The Yellow Palace. They watch each other from afar (Ganat) or make love (Nefissa) or they fear each other (Narguiss). “The devil is mad” but so is God…because there can be no other way in a world as limiting and as prejudiced and as white as hers.
One woman’s body (“a body which was unreal”) is the house of this power and at the same time, she is incredibly earthly. Like her mother before her, she searches — endlessly — for a lost son, Zakaria, whose name is consistently conflated with the name of a pagan goddess, Zahra. This one woman’s body is not her own; “it belonged to her father, or to the government, or to her dead grandfather, or to another man, whose features were strange to her, and whose name she had forgotten.”
There are two affective functions in the novel: guilt and pride. These are juxtaposed with innocence, the outcome of El Saadawi’s interrogation. The novel concludes with the death of G/N/N who, in her death (afterdeath) is told by God that “I wrote three books against you, and denied you the right to answer them […] In the court they made declared me innocent and made you the scapegoat […] Forgive me, my son. You are innocent.”
The Innocence of the Devil is a labyrinth of memory, flared-through with some shots of spellbinding imagery. At its core is a political challenge, a daring re-visioning of gender roles of the past, present, and for the future generations. The devil is, as usual, a woman — at least temporarily.