Reading around the world: Afghanistan

March 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

I completed Afghanistan in my reading around the world list well over a month ago, but haven’t had a chance to write about them (or anything else, for that matter). I read two books: A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar and A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi. Two of Rahimi’s other novels, The Patience Stone and Earth and Ashes have been made into films, but it seems impossible to watch them without buying a DVD at an extortionate price. (On this note, why is it so hard to watch films in this brave new webworld? Apart from the DVD, I could not find a single legal way to watch these recent films. iTunes will sell me the French-subtitles version for $20, so why not English?)

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Given Rahimi’s titles, you might be forgiven a moment of alarm: books from Afghanistan with words like “dream” and “stone” in their titles might suggest novels like The Kite Runner. But his work is very different. He was granted asylum in France in 1985, and his earlier novels were written in Dari, while The Patience Stone was written in French. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is, appropriately enough, a book that questions the boundary between dreams and reality. The book is written in short sections and switches back and forth between the narrator’s dreams, the memories of the previous night as they slowly return to him, his present semi-captivity and the past that led up to the crisis the novel skirts.

It’s 1979 and Farad is a student. Having grown up in a more liberal Afghanistan than the one that has been thrust on him recently, Farad has had some trouble adjusting to the pro-Soviet regime. He got into some trouble the previous night with a friend, that might have involved alcohol and definitely involved a physical struggle with authority, and he’s being sheltered by a mysterious woman—at considerable risk to her own reputation and safety—whose son appears to believe that the narrator is his long-lost father. The short sections are powerful and work towards a cumulative effect of gradual understanding for both the narrator and the reader. The writing is dark and cynical, and the book is, at least to begin with, a demanding read as we must struggle with the narrator through his disorientation.

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The Fort of Nine Towers is not a novel but rather memoir. Qais Akbar Omar opens by describing Kabul life before the Taliban and Mujaheedin. In 1991, when Qais was eight, Afghanis wanted the Soviets to be expelled—but they weren’t expecting what they got instead: the Mujaheedin. The memoir details around two decades of the author’s life, as daily life becomes ever harder and increasingly dangerous. This extended upper middle-class family is forced to move en masse to the titular fort, from where they can observe the fighting without being quite as at risk as in their old compound. Each time a family member ventures out—Qais’s father or grandfather leaving to pick up the relatives that couldn’t fit in the car the first time or to try to dig up the gold they buried before they left the compound—they have a terrifying brush with death.

It’s a fascinating memoir because the child in Qais never leaves him. Whatever new situation he and his family are thrust into—leaving the fort at short notice to travel a hugely indirect route to stay with a relative, which descends into an impromptu camping trip with several hair-raising escapades worthy of a Famous Five plot, or travelling the country with the nomadic extended family he’s never met—he is always interested and eager to learn. (This book definitely has shares something with Khaled Hosseini’s writing.) He’s also irrepressibly optimistic: despite all the evidence to the contrary, he still believes in the essential goodness of people. The narrator’s cynicism and bitterness in A Thousand Rooms, by contrast, seems to spring precisely from the betrayal of this trust.

What both books have in common is an examination of the way people adapt to extreme circumstances. Like Anne Frank’s diary, they are a reminder that there is a before for people in war-torn or politically repressive situations; a before when civilisation and the rule of law seemed untouchable. In both books Taliban stop the narrator/author and demand to see whether their testicles are hairless (in neither case are they; this is deemed a very serious offence), reminding us in the West that it’s not just women’s rights that are comprehensively trampled under these regimes, even as we also see the much greater extent to which women’s liberty and self-expression is curtailed.

Just one country in and I’m starting to think that every school curriculum should involve the study of fiction from every country in the world (except, of course, for the sad fact that pedagogy and literature make an astonishingly ugly couple). Next up is Albania. Last year I read Elvira Doñes’ Sworn Virgin (translated by Clarissa Botsford from the original Italian), published by the excellent And Other Stories. Interesting as it was, I’m not sure how representative you can call it, so I’ll be looking for at least two more recent books. Ismail Kadare springs to mind. Any recommendations?

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

March 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

There’s something about a power cut, or any other interruption to our otherwise on-tap services like water or heat, that makes us recall the intense fragility of civilisation, makes us contemplate that we are only a switch or two away from needing those emergency preparedness kits the Canadian government is always encouraging us to create.

Obviously when the apocalypse/earthquake/ice storm/financial meltdown comes I will wish I had taken it seriously and prepared like any sensible person, but it seems like too much effort to make this kit, not to mention all the perfectly good food I would let expire. (The government, keen not to be seen to promote food waste, very practically recommends eating the food in your kit before its use-by date and then replacing it with a new batch.) Plus, where would you keep these supplies, and what are the chances both of being at home when disaster strikes and of not having any other food? In any case, wouldn’t creating an emergency kit be tantamount to admitting that we don’t really trust this rickety thing called civilisation, which any fool can see is not even skin deep? I think that’s really behind my aversion to the idea. If I’m going to admit that much, then surely I’m only one step away from becoming a prepper and stockpiling tinfoil and tampons for when the shtf.

Anyway, one evening before Christmas we had a power cut. In the dark I came across this package I’d forgotten to open earlier. I pulled out a bundle of hard, lumpy things wrapped in a scrap of brown material and tied with jute twine. I was amused, then, to find in the bundle some candles, a tin of Spam, a few lists of emergency supplies and a ball of twine. Also, most importantly, a box of very good quality matches.

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Taken with no flash, lit by headlamp and tea light

This package was all part of an excellent marketing strategy for Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. Peggy Hillcoat is from a well-off family living in London. In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father—a man who has long been planning his retreat from civilisation—takes her away to a forest to live. Their shelter is “die Hütte”; beyond the trees and the mountains there is, he tells Peggy, nothing. Peggy believes that her mother and everyone else in the world is now dead.

Peggy and her father live for an astonishing nine years in the forest, hunting and growing their own food, surviving the winters, and never seeing a single other person. This narrative is interleaved with the story of Peggy’s return to civilisation—her mother, a nine-year-old brother she’s never met, some friends who haven’t aged in her mind since she saw them last. It’s not easy, coming home, especially when you’ve had the experiences Peggy has lived through.

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This novel took quite some time to get going. For almost the entire first half, the survival sections were too slow, too full of “I” sentences. The forest scene had to be well set up in order for us to believe in the continued existence of Peggy and her father, but it drags–and I say that as someone interested in how a person might live entirely self-sufficiently. The problem is compounded by a first-person narrative that mediates every sensation with “I heard” or “I felt.” What kept me reading through these slow parts was Peggy’s re-entry into society. She’s surprisingly sullen about the whole thing, and her relationship with her mother is—oddly yet fittingly—marked by a typical teenage “you don’t understand anything about me or my life” attitude, which works well here. Even in these sections, though, I felt I was waiting a little too long for payoff in the first half.

As Peggy gets older, tension in the forest mounts and both writing and structure improve. When Peggy starts to wander further, she meets the elusive Reuben and begins to realise that perhaps her father has been lying to her all this time. There’s no single clear moment when she decides to rebel, but things come to a head when her father, increasingly deranged, decides that it’s all too difficult, and that it’s time for them both to die. She promises to go with him, and for a time believes that it’s a promise she must keep, watching fatalistically from a distance as he hunts for poisonous mushrooms. She changes her mind just in time, but this decision has significant consequences both for her immediate situation and for the rest of her life.

There are some faults with this novel—the characters, even Peggy, are a bit thin and shadowy, and it could have been more forcefully edited to great effect. There’s also a musical theme throughout (Peggy’s mother is a concert pianist but has never taught Peggy to play the piano; she learns from a single sheet of music her father brought with them, and plays for hours on a soundless “piano” that her father constructs) that I found annoying but very typical of contemporary upmarket mainstream novels. These themes are never load-bearing; rather, they could be knocked out without affecting the overall construction, but giving a sense of spaciousness instead of fussiness. Overall, though, Our Endless Numbered Days is an interesting story that deals with a great many aspects of inter-human relationships, and it finishes up with a very well executed slow reveal about the nature of mind and memory under intense stress.

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