Afghanistan: blood and guts

It was harder than I expected to find an Afghan book that wasn’t by Khaled Hosseini. Not that I’ve got anything against Khaled Hosseini, but as he has become the go-to Afghan writer in the UK I was keen to see what else a curious reader could turn up from this much reported and yet strangely mysterious land.

I contacted the Afghan Women’s Writing Project for ideas. They sent back some intriguing suggestions, several of which are on the list, however as most of the books they mentioned were either stories that had been told by women to non-Afghans and written down or accounts by Western journalists and soldiers of their experiences in the country, I didn’t feel they quite met my criteria.

I even had a brief exchange with a Canadian soldier-cum-food blogger who is serving out in Afghanistan at the moment. He told me the writer he’d read in preparation for his trip was… Khaled Hosseini.

In the end, a mixture of googling and reading reviews turned up Prix Goncourt-winning The Patience Stone by French-Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi. Skipping the introduction (by Khaled Hosseini) I plunged right in.

Set ‘somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’, this slender novella portrays the struggles of a nameless woman as she tries to care for her comatose husband in a city torn apart by war. As militants roam the streets, bombs fall and the front line shifts to her neighbourhood cutting her and her children off from basic supplies, she battles to stick to the strict regime of prayer prescribed by the Mullah and to keep the wounded man clean and stable.

But as the days creep by measured out in the names of God she must recite 99 times for each of her 99 prayer beads every day and punctuated here and there by bursts of fear and sudden atrocities nearby, the woman is tested to her limits. With the power dynamics between her and the man who used to control her strangely reversed and the buildings around her crumbling, she begins to assert herself, spewing forth all the bitterness, frustrations and secrets that have walled her in for years.

The novel is stylistically striking. Told through a sort of floating consciousness that remains in the sick man’s room as the woman comes and goes and accords the same attention to the activities of the spider in the roof beams as to the human characters, the narrative has a weirdly detached air, which often makes the descriptions read like stage directions.

This creates a powerful contrast with the volleys of emotion that engulf the woman as she speaks in extraordinarily graphic terms of her physical, mental and sexual sufferings, caught up in tenderness and hate. It also makes for great suspense in the scenes where we wait in the room to discover what is happening outside, beyond our gaze, as in the passage where the woman goes to discover the grisly fate of her neighbour’s male relatives:

‘The women walk off across the rubble. They can no longer be heard.

Suddenly, a howl. From the woman. Horrified. Horrifying. Her footsteps stagger over the flagstones, stumble through the ruins, cross the garden and enter the house. She is still screaming. She vomits. Weeps. Runs around the house. Like a madwoman.’

At first the novel’s stylistic framework makes for moments of awkward exposition. With no omniscient narrator and no first-person thought processes through which to explain the backstory, Rahimi has to rely on the woman rehearsing the events that have led up to the start of the novel out loud to the unconscious man. This jars in the initial pages, but soon becomes natural and, as the woman’s thoughts and emotions become more volatile, even develops into the novel’s central trope.

Rahimi’s transformation of his narrative’s weakness into its strength, mirroring his central character’s journey, is impressive. I was gripped and moved by his ability to make something so telling and immediate out of stylistic constraints that might have been alienating and pedantic in another writer’s hands. It made me very glad I wandered off the beaten track.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage Digital, 2010)

24 responses

  1. I’ll have to look for this one – I’ve been trying (and it’s hard) to learn Dari to better understand this land. Afghan literature seems to be mostly poetry and proverbs rather than much in the way of novels. No one here I’ve talked to really had much insight into modern Afghan literature so it seems you’ve stumbled upon something relatively rare.

    • Thanks Nick – that’s interesting. In that case Rahimi’s use of the novel form may be explained by his long residency in France. From what I can make out, he has written books in both Dari Persian and French – his Dari books may be a good way for you to practice your language skills.

      • It’s an exceedingly difficult language to learn to read – but the grammar and structure are slowly starting to come together for me at least. I’ll be fluent just in time to leave, probably! However, Farsi is fairly commonly spoken where I live, so I will likely have some opportunity to practice and use it anyhow!

  2. I just watched your TED talk, and find that my bookshelf is probably just as skewed as you described yours to be at the beginning of this project. Thank you for doing the leg work! I probably cannot do all of the reading in a year, but I have decided to start at the top of the list with “The Patience Stone.” It sounds like a difficult and fascinating book to read, and I am very much looking forward to its arrival in my mailbox in a few days!

  3. Hi, my reference book about living in Afghanistan is The bookseller in Kabul. Even though the writer Asne Seierstad is Norwegian she has spent time in Kabul by an all Afghan family to tell their life and it has helped me a lot to understand the way of Afghan living that has been ruined by the endless wars over the last 30 and more years…

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  5. Hi, My name is Annie. I watched your TED talk by chance. Thanks for your suggestion. You’ve inspired me. and I want to read the books you recommended. I have decided to start at the top of the list with “The Patience Stone.” I was wondering whether you had the E-book of The Patience Stone? Would you please sent it to me? Thank you very much.

      • Thanks for your reply. And I really agree to the reason. I have found a way to buy the book. Not e-book. I also want to thank you because you have already chosen the books for us to read. Considering that you list more than one book under different countries in the list, I was wondering which one is worth more reading than others? I want to choose those with a link reading, like the patience stone, Broken April etc. Do you think it is OK? By the way, English is not my mother tongue ,So it’s a challenge for me. But I want to try and you are my good example.

      • Great. The list is not about me telling people what books to read – it is a record of the books I read for my project. There have been many amazing things published since and I hope people will explore those things too and make their own discoveries. Of course you are welcome to use my journey as a resource but you should feel free to explore for yourself too. Have fun!

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