Review: 'The Diesel'

The Diesel was originally published in Arabic in 1994 and is the first novel by poet Thani Al-Suwaidi. William Hutchins recently translated the book into English.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Now, a review of a novel that first made an impact in the mid-'90s. It was written by the poet Thani al-Suwaidi of the United Arab Emirates. The novel was first published in Arabic in 1994 and stirred up a critical storm. Now, it's been translated into English by William Hutchins, and Alan Cheuse has this review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: In this short novel, less than 90 pages in this edition, including a more than 10-page scholarly introduction by the translator, we meet El Diesel. He/she is a djinn or demon born of the vast oil deposits beneath the Middle Eastern sands and then born into a fisherman's family on the coast of the Emirates, born as a transgendered child who grows up to become a highly praised musician and performer. Told by the demon child, as a young man, to a muezzin in a local mosque, the story unfolds in a series of vertiginous riffs, on childhood, on village life, on commerce, on government, on the power of music, all of it built of powerful images out of desert life, which the narrator freely associates on, producing a sort of Arab surrealism with a deep foundation in local folklore.

Here's just a taste of it, a riff on the rising sun, this sun, the Diesel says, that has from pre-eternity wept light while we see and warm ourselves by its tears, believing them to be smiles of laughter. It sleeps just as we do, and no one asks who falls asleep first - us or the sun - because when it sets, the sun may stretch out in bed. Its red blush may be a sign to her lover, who lives on Earth, to climb up her last rays and sleep with her. This little work of fiction, with its wild metaphors and surprising turns, seems as tipsy as a dancer with too many drinks. It celebrates the Dionysian element in Arab culture we've seen much too little of these recent decades.

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CORNISH: That's Alan Cheuse with a review of the new translation of the novel "The Diesel" by Thani al-Suwaidi. Alan's most recent book is "Paradise, or, Eat Your Face: A Trio of Novellas."

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