Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

Title: Earth and Ashes
Author: Atiq Rahimi
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 67
Publisher: Other Press
Translated by: Erdag M.Goknar

About the Author:
Born in Kabul in 1962, Atiq Rahimi was only 17 years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He fled to Pakistan during the war and was granted political asylum in France in 1984. After the end of Taliban regime in 2002, he returned to his home country where he filmed an adaptation of Earth and Ashes. The film was in the Official Selection at Cannes in 2004 and won several prizes. His first novel 'The Patience Stone' won the Prix Goncourt in 2008.

"... these days the dead are more fortunate than the living. What are we to do? We're on the eve of destruction. Men have lost all sense of honor. Power has become their faith instead of faith being their power. There are no longer any courageous men..."

This slim novella begins with a bleak landscape, a torn bridge that connects northern Afghanistan to Kabul, dry river-beds, a dirt track that runs sinuous between the scrub-covered hills leading to a coal mine. An old Afghan man, Dastaguir squats against the railings of the bridge, his eyes fixed on the dusty road waiting to hitchhike a ride to the coal mine. A bundle of dust-covered apples and a stale bread lay beside him. But, what weighs him down is unbearable grief, solitude and loss. As the old man strikes conversation with the benevolent shopkeeper, truck driver and the guard at the post, the readers slowly begin to understand the grave situation he is in. Dastaguir's son Murad left to work in the coal mines years ago, leaving his family with Dastaguir.

"... Over the four years Murad has worked at the mine, you haven’t had a single chance to visit him. It’s been four years since he entrusted his young wife and his son Yassin to you and left for the mine to earn his living. The truth is, Murad wanted to flee the village and its inhabitants. He wanted to go far away. So he left…Thank God he left."

The Russian Army has just bombed his village, reducing it to earth and ashes. Dastaguir's family perished in the disastrous event leaving him in despair. Unable to bear his solitude and grief, he bears a terrible news wondering how to convey it to his son Murad who works in the coal mine. Only a handful of survivors remained - including his young grandson Yassin. But, Yassin lost his hearing during the bombing, though he doesn't know it yet.

"They must've come and taken the voice of the shopkeeper and the voice of the guard... Grandfather, have the Russians come and taken away everyone's voice? What do they do with all the voices? Why did you let them take away your voice? If you hadn't, would they've killed you? Grandma didn't give them her voice and she's dead. If she were here, she'd tell me the story of Baba Kharkash...No, if she were here, she'd have no voice...

Grandfather, do I have a voice? You answer involuntarily, "Yes". He repeats the question. You look at him and nod "yes', making him understand. The child falls silent again. Then he asks, "So why am I alive?"

Written from the perspective of a second-person, the writers invites the readers into the hearts and minds of their bleak lives, the desolate souls who have lost everything in the war. That makes it very powerful, a clever attempt on writer's part for sure. The prose is sparse, poignant, his characters profoundly empathetic. In a meagre 67 pages, the author tries to pack centuries of Afghan history into a slim, bleak novella. It offers no hope only grief, no pleasure just pain. For Western audience its quite an ambitious effort, yet the prose is strikingly beautiful, words sharp as a dagger ready to plunge your heart in deep sorrow. I read this book in one sitting, though I went over it a couple of times to read fragments of text that I really loved. For instance. "You know, Father, sorrow can turn to water and spill from your eyes, or it can sharpen your tongue into a sword, or it can become a time bomb that, one day, will explode and destroy you". I would have liked to see it written more elaborate, complete, but when there is no hope but only grief, what is left to say? When your soul is scorched and scathed, ripped and blasted, what is life to you? What is world to you? You just let it pass by..

"Silence. You watch the rocks and scrub race past. It's not you who are passing them No. It's as if they are passing you. You're not moving. It's the world that's moving. You've been condemned to exist and watch the world pass, to watch your wife pass, to watch your children pass... Your hands tremble. Your heart flutters. Your sight goes dim. You roll down the window of the truck to refresh yourself. The air isn't refreshing. It has become thick, heavy, and black, It's not your sight that has gone dim, it's the air that has grown dark."

Not many novels come out of this war-torn country, such a pity it is. The only other Afghan based novels I have read before are Khaled Hosseini's novels. No wonder I was dying to find out what this novella was all about. If you get past the initial shock of how small it is, you will come to realize that this book is worth its weight in gold . You will truly appreciate the author for his highly commendable work for its not just a story of war, also that of a story about father and sons. Of love and grief. Family and relationships. The power of the story lies in the fact that you feel like a part of it. You are either the accused or the victim. You take a side. You either take the blame, cry in shame. Or You be the victim, weep in sorrow. No matter what, you cry. You grieve. You try to understand. It weighs you down. You fall to the dust, You pray for hope. You become Dastaguir. He becomes you.

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