Farhad is a typical student, twenty-one years old, interested in wine, women, and poetry, and negligent of the religious conservatism of his grandfather. But he lives in Kabul in 1979, and the early days of the pro-Soviet coup are about to change his life forever. One night Farhad goes out drinking with a friend who is about to flee to Pakistan, and is brutally abused by a group soldiers. A few hours later he slowly regains consciousness in an unfamiliar house, beaten and confused, and thinks at first that he is dead. A strange and beautiful woman has dragged him into her home for safekeeping, and slowly Farhad begins to feel a forbidden love for her — a love that embodies an angry compassion for the suffering of Afghanistan’s women. As his mind sifts through its memories, fears, and hallucinations, and the outlines of reality start to harden, he realizes that, if he is to escape the soldiers who wish to finish the job they started, he must leave everything he loves behind and find a way to get to Pakistan.
Rahimi uses his tight, spare prose to send the reader deep into the fractured mind and emotions of a country caught between religion and the political machinations of the world’s superpowers.
When the Soviet army arrives in Afghanistan, the elderly Dastaguir witnesses the destruction of his village and the death of his clan. His young grandson Yassin, deaf from the sounds of the bombing, is one of the few survivors. The two set out through an unforgiving landscape, searching for the coal mine where Murad, the old man’s son and the boy’s father, works. They reach their destination only to learn that they must wait and rely for help on all that remains to them: a box of chewing tobacco, some unripe apples, and the kindness of strangers.
Haunting in its spareness, is a tale of devastating loss, but also of human perseverance in the face of madness and war.
Reading Dostoevsky in Afghanistan becomes “crime without punishment”
Rassoul remembers reading as a student of Russian literature in Leningrad, so when, with axe in hand, he kills the wealthy old lady who prostitutes his beloved Sophia, he thinks twice before taking her money or killing the woman whose voice he hears from another room. He wishes only to expiate his crime and be rightfully punished. Out of principle, he gives himself up to the police. But his country, after years of civil war, has fallen into chaos. In Kabul there is only violence, absurdity, and deafness, and Rassoul’s desperate attempt to be heard turns into a farce.
This is a novel that not only flirts with literature but also ponders the roles of sin, guilt, and redemption in the Muslim world. At once a nostalgic ode to the magic of Persian tales and a satire on the dire reality of now, also portrays the resilience and wit of Afghani women, an aspect of his culture that Rahimi never forgets.
“Rahimi turns his attention to and juxtaposes literature against the Muslim world in Kabul, the themes of civil war, chaos, sin, guilt and redemption for Afghani women again being the theme. ‘Crime without punishment?’”
“A darkly comic meditation on life in a lawless land… In restrained prose, Rahimi explores both the personal and the political; it’s both in dialogue with a classic and is daringly outspoken.”
“In a rare imaginative feat, Rahimi renews many of Dostoevsky’s original psychological insights and opens piercing new ones. Unforgettable.”
“Atiq Rahimi, like the great story tellers of Afghanistan, is a master of using a small moment to tell the sweeping story of the pain and loss of war. In he yet again imprints images in the memory, as he captures both the unspeakable absurdity of the Afghan civil war and the ingenious ways Afghans have found to move beyond it.”
“Rahimi does a masterful job both in echoing Dostoevsky and in updating the moral complexities his protagonist both creates and faces.”
“Here, Atiq Rahimi sings an incandescent, raging story, which dissects, in a highly sensitive way, the chaos of his homeland and the contradictions of his people.”
Rahimi (Earth and Ashes) won the 2008 Prix Goncourt for this brief, melodramatic novel set amid factional violence somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere. It follows the circumscribed movements of a Muslim woman largely confined to the house where she nurses her comatose husband, who's been shot by a fellow jihadist. A humorless, inflammatory mullah pays the woman unwelcome visits, and sexually menacing soldiers break into her house. Though such events generate tension and drama, the novel's cultural and historical milieu lacks specificity, and Rahimi may have erred in sketching the story's political context vaguely. For some readers, his intimate attention to objects and spaces may compensate for the grating confessional tenor that develops later, when the narrator divulges damning secrets to her husband's unresponsive body and fulfilling the book's premise a little too obviously by referring to him as her patience stone. McLean 's translation is faultless, but the narrator's reminiscences feel stilted; the patience-stone conceit borders on gimmickry; and incidents of a violent or sexual nature seem overdetermined.