A Curse on Dostoevsky, by Atiq Rahimi
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
A Curse on Dostoevsky
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.”