Sunday, October 23, 2016

Afghanistan: A Curse on Dostoevsky, by Atiq Rahimi

Initially I thought Afghanistan would be easy, but it turns out that most books set in Afghanistan are written by non Afghanis. Nadia Hashimi visited Christchurch in the last readers and writers festival, but it turns out that she was born in America of Afghani parents. (I do have one of her books waiting to be read). In the end, it came down to Khaled Hosseini - now living in the US - and Atiq Rahimi - now living in France. I had already read several books by Hosseini, so Atiq Rahimi was the pick.

I found this book quite difficult from a Western perspective. The protagonist seemed neither likeable nor sympathetic. The book starts with him committing a murder. Gradually, his reasons for the murder, and his unravelling state of mind afterwards, are revealed. He identifies with Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (which I have not read, so have to take the parallels on the authors say so). Eventually though, I came to believe that the main theme of the book was to point out the differences between Western and Afghani justice. When Rassoul tries to turn himself in, the authorities don't take him seriously. Murder is a civil matter, between the murderer and the family of the victim. Other crimes, which we would consider far more trivial, turn out to be taken much more seriously in the eyes of the authorities. For instance, the accusation that he is a communist, and that he took a prostitute to a sacred site.

One can see why the author may have had to leave Afghanistan. Passages such as: "You know, the communists spent ten years doing everything they could to turn this nation against Allah,without success. The Muslims, on the other hand, have achieved it in a single year!" could hardly endear him to the authorities.

In the end, I found the book offered an interesting perspective on a very different world view, even if the thinking was hard to follow at times. Would I read more by the same author? I'm not sure. Though this book proclaims "winner of the Prix Goncourt", so clearly there are plenty of fans out there.

The translator (from French) is Polly McLean.

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