Portrait of a Brave Woman

In his brilliantly written novel, Afghan author Atiq Rahimi holds the reader transfixed with a gripping account of the appalling conditions in his country, wracked by war, atrocity and under-development. Volker Kaminski presents the book

Atiq Rahimi (photo: dpa)
Frugal and incisive language: Atiq Rahimi, writer and filmmaker

​​The place: "somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere". The setting: a small room with a black-and-white photo on the wall and a mattress on the floor. Lying on it is a motionless man, paralysed by war injuries and fed intravenously through a tube. Next to him, a woman who holds his hand in one of hers and with the other counts off prayer beads on a chain, deeply absorbed in thought.

The woman beseeches Allah to make her husband well again so that he can return to her and their two small daughters. She cares for him night and day, changing the intravenous tube, while she herself suffers from hunger and is threatened by the acts of war that flare up sporadically nearby the hospital. Nothing can stop her from keeping constant watch at her husband's bedside.

And yet, "the woman", who like "the man" and the other characters in the novel remains nameless, by no means submits helplessly to her fate. On the contrary, she demonstrates astounding strength, enabling her to recount her life of oppression at her husband's side in long, soul-searching monologues. In the process, she becomes increasingly aware of the enormity of the injustices she has suffered.

Crystal-clear prose

Atiq Rahimi, who, after writing two novels in Persian, won the Prix Goncourt in 2008 for his first novel written in French, La pierre de patience (The Patience Stone), captivates the reader with his crystal-clear prose. Every word counts in short sentences redolent with symbolism and in a plot whose tight arc holds the reader spellbound from beginning to end.

The frugal and incisive language is just as significant here as the distanced viewpoint of the narrator, who follows the events from outside at a consistent distance.

At this year's International Literature Festival in Berlin, Rahimi explained how his experiences as a film director had been helpful in writing the novel. He edited the book as he would a film, focusing on the composition of each scene while choosing the details carefully. And yet the novel by no means gives a schematic or superficial impression, thanks primarily to the trenchant voice of the protagonist.

Hopelessness and undeserved oppression

In the monologues that continually start up in the Afghan woman's head, we listen in on her tirades lamenting a life of misery in a society marked by brutality and neglect. It's bad enough that she wasn't given an opportunity to meet her future husband before being engaged to marry him – he did not even attend his own wedding.

​​Afterwards, she had to wait for three years before he returned from the war. In a country where men make the rules and bloodshed is the order of the day, women and children must defend themselves from the constant threat of abuse.

What is special about the narrative situation the author has chosen is that the husband's injuries render him silent, permitting his wife to open up more and more and to speak frankly of the problems in their marriage without fearing reprisals. Rather than merely praying, she is able to bare her soul and make a kind of confession. She takes a stand against her husband, admitting that she finds him repulsive and calling him a "monster" for all he has done to her.

At the same time, she feels a strong sense of catharsis; it revives her life spirit to finally be able to "talk to him about it all, without being interrupted, without being berated." The man, who just lies there mute but still breathing, is more to her than "a living corpse" whose return to life seems more than doubtful; he is transformed for her into a kind of sacred talisman, into the "patience stone" in whom she confides everything, who absorbs all her pain, unhappiness and misery, "until one fine day it explodes."

Spotlight on the brutality of Taliban rule

By spotlighting in a series of secondary storylines the civil strife under Taliban rule, the novel tells in its discreet way of the hopeless plight and undeserved oppression of the women in Afghanistan.

The state of affairs in the region is rendered in finely shaded tones, however, and in addition to a majority of negatively depicted (mostly male) characters, there are also a few who become the woman's allies: her father-in-law, who abhors the war; her aunt, a social outcast; and a young, bashful soldier for whom the woman pretends to be a prostitute to save her life.

However, the story's suspense comes above all from the unresolved situation at the bedside of the half-dead husband, in whom the woman confides more and more of her innermost thoughts and most intimate secrets while she continues to care for him. In the end it all – unexpectedly – comes to a head in a catastrophe that we cannot reveal here.

Rahimi, who teaches at the University of Kabul and is currently busy setting up a writers' centre and publishing house there, succeeds in his masterfully crafted novel in drawing the reader into the fortunes of a country wracked by war, atrocities and under-development. We follow the story with bated breath to the very last word.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2009

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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