A Curse on Dostoevsky, by Atiq Rahimi
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
A Curse on Dostoevsky
Afghanistan appears destined to remain a terrifying place in which no one is safe. It is also a rich source for novelists.
The writer Atiq Rahimi fled his native country in 1984 at the age of 22, initially finding refuge in Pakistan before settling in France. Although he won the 2008 Prix Goncourt with his brave polemic, The Patience Stone, he had already become famous with his wonderful debut, Earth and Ashes, a novella of extraordinary beauty.
Written in Dari, an Afghani language, it was translated into English and, although only 54 pages long, was deservedly shortlisted for the 2004 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. It tells the story of an old man, who, accompanied by his little grandson, attempts to visit the boy’s father, who is away working in the mines. The old man wants to tell his son about the attack on their village in which his other son and the mining son’s wife have been killed and the little boy has been left deaf.
It is a delicate miracle of storytelling, part fable, part lament; luminous and graceful despite the violence. Rahimi’s screen version featured in the official selection at Cannes the same year. Within two years, Rahimi had followed it with his finest book to date, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, also written in Dari.
Set in Kabul in December 1979, shortly before the Soviet invasion, it is the story of a student, possibly Rahimi, fleeing for his life. Autobiography or not, it is the story of Afghanistan and one acted out against the pattern of a valuable rug, a family heirloom that not only pays for the student narrator’s passage to safety, the narrator also hides in it. It is an exciting book and, again, beautifully told.
“My grandfather used to say that, according to Da Mullah Saed Mustafa, when you’re asleep your soul leaves your body and wanders around. And if you wake up before your soul has come back to your body, you get trapped in a terrible nightmare where you’re paralysed and totally powerless . . . and you stay like that till your soul returns.”
The narrator also recalls his grandfather explaining to him that the reason his grandmother had suffered a heart attack was due to her having “tried to get up before her soul returned to her body”.
Much of the persuasive power of his second novel rests in the first-person narrative. The student’s bewilderment shapes the story; his responses linger as do his recollections of the sensations of pain and fear, the many dreams and nightmares that stalk him during the various beatings he endures.
Nightmares also feature throughout the new novel, A Curse on Dostoevsky, which again centres on a student or, at least, a young man who has studied Russian literature in Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then named. He has returned to Afghanistan with his head full of literature and confused notions of love.
There are so many things wrong with this formless, confused, haphazard novel that it is difficult to know where to begin. Why not with the unconvincing central character, Rassoul? He appears in the opening sentence just as he is lifting the axe to bring it down on the old woman’s skull. Cue Raskolnikov and virtually from then on, it is clear that this narrative is never likely to develop into anything, not even a passable pastiche of Crime and Punishment.
Rassoul – perhaps the name is deliberately intended to include the word “soul”, but does it matter? – is an inept individual who is loftily in love with the virtuous Sophia while frequently indulging in sexual fantasies with his landlord’s wife, Rona, who spends her time staring at him.
Kabul does come to life in one vivid descriptive sequence as a fire blazes in the aftermath of an explosion: “Rassoul reassumes his journey towards the mountain. He stares wearily at the dark, narrow lanes that weave up the slopes, forming a veritable labyrinth, a sprawl of about a thousand houses, all made of earth, built right on top of each other all the way up to the top of the mountain that divides the city of Kabul geographically, politically and morally, in both its dreams and its nightmares. It looks like a belly about to burst.”
Throughout the novel, Rahimi sustains a half-hearted third-person narrative that at times includes Rassoul appearing to steady his thoughts by speaking to himself: “Speak about your setbacks, the conflict with your communist father who sent you to study in the USSR against your will . . . No, don’t mention the love affair with a Russian girl.”
Much of the text consists of Rassoul’s thoughts, such as they are, and as to whether or not he is awake or dreaming; not that it really matters. He loses his voice, which adds to the ongoing dumb show of a narrative. “The nightmare is his life. Grace is but a dream. That’s probably why he has no desire to open his eyes, to leave his bed, to greet the black sun, to smell the sulphur of war, to find his lost voice, or to think about the murder.”
Ironically, in those few sentences Rahimi sums up this disappointing work. Rassoul is an idiot who eventually decides that he must pay for killing the old woman, although her body is never found. It does not require much imagination on the part of the reader to wonder if the murder was just another dream.
It doesn’t really matter, largely because this novel does not matter. By the time Rassoul, having given himself up to what passes as the law, demands “I want a legal trial. I want to be sacrifice”, most readers will be beyond laughter.
The only likeable and remotely believable character, Parwaiz, referred to as the head of security in Kabul and a man with problems of his own, offers Rassoul some advice: “Stop thinking you are that Dostoevsky character, please. His act only made sense within the context of his society, his religion.”
But Dostoevsky should not be held solely responsible for this poorly conceived novel; Kafka and Camus could also be blamed for luring Rahimi into the realm of philosophical, surrealist fiction for which he appears, judging by this outing, spectacularly ill-equipped. It is true that The Patience Stone, in which Rahimi exposed the brutal inequality women suffer in Afghanistan is brave and truthful, if not particularly high art. He made effective use of the black patience stone or sounding board to which women could confide their secrets. The Patience Stone is a haranguing tale yet its intent is clear, despite the theatricality and obvious melodrama.
In it, Rahimi, the artist of his first two novels – both of which merit close reading – stepped back in order to permit the truth-teller the full stage in that third novel which relies on its raw fury.
A Curse On Dostoevsky is about as close to a bad nightmare as a novel can be. It is so incoherent and confused that the best way to approach it is to realise that unlike a dream, you don’t even have to wait to wake up, you can simply abandon it. Better still, avoid reading this bogus attempt at writing a “clever” book and look to Rahimi’s previous works.