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.