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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Woman of the Flask

Selim Matar

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Title: The Woman of the Flask
Author: Selim Matar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 174 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Woman of the Flask - US
The Woman of the Flask - UK
The Woman of the Flask - Canada
La femme à la fiole - France
  • Arabic title: إمرأة القارورة
  • Translated by Peter Clark

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Our Assessment:

B : a fine idea he doesn't quite come to grips with

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Woman of the Flask is a novel that has both autobiographical and completely fantastical elements. Like the author, the central character, Adam, is an Iraqi who has left the country and now lives in Switzerland. Adam brought a flask with him from home, one that had been passed down in his family, and when he finally opens it he finds a houri in it, the 'woman of the flask'. Not quite a wish-fulfilling genie, the creature has been: "an heirloom, from father to son" for countless generations.
       The woman explains: "Whoever possesses the flask possesses the secrets of my spirit and my body", and Adam is quite taken by that. He is married, but Hajir -- so her name -- offers a completely order of fulfillment (and a guilt-free one at that -- in fact, it makes for a better sex-life with the wife as well ...). Yes, he sleeps with her, and:

Every moment of trembling desire was equivalent to the events of a whole year. It was as if his body was turned into liquid jelly that had taken human form.
       The male-fantasy being played out here devolves into the inadvertently hilarious when the narrator spells out what makes her such a great lover:
     She overwhelmed Adam with the ease with which she made love to him. There was no need for foreplay as is the case with most women. She was always ready to make love, warm and damp. More than this, she always arrived at an orgasm at the right moment. She never made him feel, not for an instant, that he had to hold back on his thrusts and passion, or to have to think of something else to give her time to reach her later climax, as happens with other women.
       Similarly, Adam and his wife had been unable to conceive until now -- but that wasn't his ultra-virile fault !
Far from it. His sperm count was good and more than necessarily active. It was this excessive activity that got in the way of the act of conception. They said that this defect went back to the psychological composition of men who, in spite of their vigorous appetite, subconsciously hated women. They loathed everything female and fertile, especially the maternal personality.
       But once he has Hajir everything sorts itself out. Her attraction is laregly primal -- "If God had made man from clay mixed with pleasure, then she was pure pleasure" -- but her tales of how she came to be immortalised as a flask-woman, and what she has seen over the centuries are also captivating.
       She never really causes any problems, either -- Adam has no problem juggling the two women in his wife --, but eventually he wants more. He wants to free her from her jail and eternal state of suspension. He is, ultimately, successful --:
     But disaster came as a thunderbolt to destroy the very foundations of his dream. It did not occur to him that the end would be so swift, so awful, and so cruelly mocking.
       So, no, things don't work out quite as he had hoped -- for surprisingly mundane reasons.
       It's an odd story, but there are some excellent flights of fancy here, especially as Hajir describes what she has lived through. What remains unsettling throughout, however, is Matar's choice of narrator. This entire first-person account is related by a close friend of Adam's, another Iraqi exile whose life has followed a very similar path to Adams, also leading to Switzerland. At times he almost seems to meld into Adam, sharing his experiences, yet they also go their separate ways. It is an odd overlap that has been going on for decades as, for example, they were both marked by what they had witnessed in childhood. Yet though it is the narrator who has some of the most vivid experiences, it is also mainly Adam's story.
       Because he is not quite omniscient in a story that occasionally demands omniscience the narrative takes a few peculiar turns. Still, Matar keeps the magic coming so fast -- beginning with the introductory chapter, in which the befuddled narrator explains how he came to this manuscript which, he's told, is his -- that readers are simply swept up in the wild ride. The more bothersome turbulence (aside also from the problematic attitude towards male-female relationships) is the style, as Matar is prone to overwriting, leading to passages such as:
Torrential anxiety filled every fiber of his being, and his nerves jangled with fear, making his heart beat furiously, pumping his blood through his veins as it was liquid fuel.
       While the flights of fancy -- or at least into the world opened by the flask -- can take this approach, Matar doesn't know when to dial it down. Indeed, too often he seems to be trying to outdo himself, and instead the text winds up overheated, the writing even clumsy.
       It's a good idea Matar has for his novel, but he couldn't completely come to grips with it, the stumbling points including his inability to set himself more apart from the text. He seems to have tried -- especially with that awkward solution he found for a narrator -- but while the Iraqi backstory works well enough, he probably should have opted for something other than his own Swiss life for that part of the story. Still, there's a lot to enjoy in this packed and millennium-spanning tale.

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The Woman of the Flask: Reviews: Selim Matar: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iraqi author Selim Matar (سليم مطر) was born in 1956. He lives in Switzerland.

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© 2008 the complete review

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