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The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (Interlink World Fiction Series) Paperback – September 28, 2001
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With everyone paying more attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the wake of recent events, Habiby's novel about a Palestinian man, Saeed, who remains in Israel after its creation and becomes an informer for the state, is sure to attract attention. Written in 1974 but appearing for the first time in the U.S., the tale is told in the form of letters written to an unnamed correspondent after Saeed has escaped to outer space with the help of an extraterrestrial friend. Saeed's experiences are both comic and tragic, triumphant and defeated. He tries to gain favor by being the best informant, but his bad luck and dim wit guarantee his failure; his life is lived in constant fear, yet he is never without hope. Habiby's blending of fantasy and reality intentionally obscures our sense of what is real and what is not, but it heightens our awareness of the complexity of the political conflict in the Middle East. As an Arab in Israel (and one-time member of the Israeli Parliament), Habiby has strong views on the conflict, but even readers who disagree with him will find this strange novel to be thought-provoking on a number of levels. Helpful translators' notes serve as a primer on Middle Eastern history and culture. Beth Warrell
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Arabic
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Saeed is able to relate his tale only when he is rescued by an extraterrestrial being (perhaps the Reaper himself) who removes him physically from the absurdities in which he is trapped. In each part of the subsequent autobiographical account, he relates a different loss--of his first love, of his wife and son, of the daughter of his first love--each under different circumstances that are identical in their irrationality. A coward himself, comically useless to his superiors, he is surrounded by rebels. But, once freed from earthly shackles, he can unsparingly ridicule his oppressors, and his tale mocks both Arab oligarchies and Israeli officials.
Habiby's novel owes much to Voltaire, as he makes clear in both the book's title and in a chapter called "The Amazing Similarity between Candide and Saeed." When his extraterrestrial savior points out the resemblance, Saeed responds, "Don't blame me for that. Blame our way of life that hasn't changed since Voltaire's day," and he draws parallels between Pangloss and Israeli dignitaries and between Candide's experiences and recent Palestinian history. The difference, of course, is that Candide always concluded that "All is well in the world," while Saeed the pessoptimist is not so sure.
Habiby's wit is most palatable when it is barbed, and his story is most powerful when it is tragic. The farce tends to silliness, however, occasionally threatening to undercut the satire. (To be frank, I have never been able to appreciate the slapstick follies in Voltaire's novel, either.) There's no doubt that much of the book's wit and wordplay is lost in the translation between languages and cultures; without the translators' pages of notes, I would have been lost. Nevertheless, the novel will surprise you with its most powerful scenes, especially when Saeed meets his battered namesake in prison and the ambiguous, tragic, climactic episode depicting the fate of his son and wife, an event that manages to be both melancholy and glorious. Such passages remind the reader that Saeed (as well as his fellow Palestinians) can hardly hope to be in control of the world in which he lives; although unchained, he remains "a prisoner unable to escape."
The book is a humorous allegory, wrapped around everyday Arab life, with a bitter nucleus of Israeli oppression. Like Voltaire?s Candide, Saeed believes that this is the best of all worlds. To him it seems quite natural that the occupying forces arrest people in the middle of the night for no reason, that they deport them, that they blow up houses, and that they devastate whole villages. After all, they won the war, and everything - and everybody - now belongs to them. There are those Arabs who want to retaliate immediately. But they are told that the tree is not loved for its flowers, but for its fruit. After all, it took them close to two hundred years to throw out the crusaders. Saeed is the simple soul who sees what goes on around him, but cannot understand why it is so. The bitterness comes with the explanation.
Mr. Habiby wrote a devastating satire. His own life paralleled that of Saeed: he was an Arab in Israel, even a member of the Israeli parliament. He wrote this book almost 30 years ago. It is still valid.
It started out interestingly enough, I actually found myself smiling and laughing. I was curious about this strange Saeed individual, and his journey. As the story progressed though, I felt like it had lost the plot. I was losing interest, and I was finding it hard to keep going. Saeed's journey was a bit surreal - but not in a good way. It just felt like one very long, endless, dream that he was having. I understand that the idea of the book is its humor and sarcasm, but I didn't really think that Emile Habiby delivered the wit and comic relief that he may have intended. It was a chore to read it, and that alone was a disappointment for me.
On the other hand, it has to be said that this book is translated from Arabic, and I think a lot of the messages and the jokes conveyed could have been lost in translation.
I found Saeed to be boring, uninteresting, naive, and - I hate to say this, but - stupid.
Not a book that I would normally recommend, but I do believe in supporting the Palestinian cause - and as such, all Palestinian literature, no matter the quality.