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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Diesel

Thani Al-Suwaidi

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Title: The Diesel
Author: Thani Al-Suwaidi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 85 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Diesel - US
The Diesel - UK
The Diesel - Canada
The Diesel - India
  • Arabic title: الديزل
  • Translated and with an Introduction by William M. Hutchins

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Our Assessment:

B : densely allegorical poetic fiction of a place in transition

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Translator William M. Hutchins begins his Introduction with the claim: "The Diesel is a typical coming-of-age story" -- and while he does go on, in the same sentence, to suggest why it isn't exactly typical, the coming-of-age notion sticks. The Introduction also focuses a great deal of attention of the fact that the eponymous protagonist is "a transgender person". But rather than being simply a coming-of-age novel centered around a character's sexual identity, The Diesel presents a much broader continuum of change -- and so, for example, the narrator only becomes (known as) 'The Diesel' relatively late in the story. This is a story about identity, and finding it, but even at the very end the narrator laments: "Oh, if only you knew, my friend, who I am !" Clarity and certainty remain elusive.
       Al-Suwaidi is apparently better known as a poet, and The Diesel is his only novel. It is a densely poetic work -- arguably even a poem in prose -- and there's little straightforward naturalism here.
       The narrator's mother died after he was born (though there are times he refuses to believe this, certain that: "My mother didn't die !"), and he grows up with his sister -- seven years older than him, and at one with the sea, announcing, for example: "I'm not like terrestrial women. I can give birth even without becoming pregnant !" -- and a domineering fisherman father.
       From early on there's a sense of his sexual ambiguity, but in a narrative so full of ambiguity (sis is out in the sea, naming the fishes that she considers her children ...) little is fixed or certain. This seems appropriate, too, in a world undergoing rapid change; the quiet seaside town is transformed, and what is presumably the new-found oil-wealth transforms landscapes and society. Eventually:

     All the governors were experiencing a new era of civil unrest. They were inching towards a more natural way of life, maneuvering in fields of faces, wrenching their trees from women's thighs, and seating themselves on lumps of the sun.
       At age fifteen, the narrator spends the night in a mosque, and agrees to satisfy a wayfarer spending the night there as well as compensation. Even in scenes such as this one, ambiguity shrouds all: what happens is only suggested, and the extent of coercion or seduction -- a rite of passage forced upon him, or sought out by him -- remains unclear. "Friends, that's how I began", the narrator simply concludes.
       Elswhere, it is not so much sex itself as the effect he has on others that he focuses on. Neither women nor men are readily at ease with him -- or rather, with the feelings he apparently arouses in them. He is drawn into the circle of women, yet he is also not entirely one of them.
       Eventually, he becomes 'The Diesel', an entertainer in great demand -- and assumes an even greater role in the eyes of the people. As one explains:
Even though delight overwhelms our bodies, all we can say is that you are the dry desert's fertile land, the seas's vexed face, the earth's cloud that wipes away its dust, our eyes' window that watches light destroy it victims, and our deities who stretch to the end of spring.
       Ultimately, he is made into a revolutionary (here as elsewhere, he seems reluctant to fully embrace his identity and has, again, to be prodded to it) and understands: "Now I bring a new rebellion and a new heart."
       Aspects of sexual identity -- the male as rooted in the female ("woman is our original format") -- are central to his story, but his life-journey also reflects the myriad changes going on around him. While his family fails to adapt -- the mother dies, the father remains rooted in tradition (and then also dies), and the sister escapes into a fantasy world -- he lets himself be drawn along in these changing times, adapting himself.
       Eliptical and poetic, The Diesel is not a straightforward text. It appears to arise out of not simply a different culture but also a different writing-tradition -- its orality also emphasized by the fact that much of the text is directly addressed to a neighbor and "mute friend" (i.e. also the reader) as if in conversation. That's certainly also part of the appeal of the novel, but also poses quite a hurdle. Nevertheless, it's certainly of some interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 November 2012

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The Diesel: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       United Arab Emirates author Thani Al-Suwaidi (ثاني السويدي) was born in 1966.

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