11 December 2007

Atiq Rahimi, Earth and Ashes, 2000

Set during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, Earth and Ashes is a first novel from an Afghan film-maker more accustomed to making documentaries. This is worth mentioning as the book reads as a short personal fable and packs its emotional punch by looking at the spiritual cost of a person subjected to loss as opposed to any visually distressing imagery, which this book veils behind the digressive ramblings and nightmares of an elderly man in the shock of sudden grief. Earth and Ashes opens with Dastaguir, an Afghan grandfather and the book’s narrator, taking his grandson Yassin to see the boy’s father Murad, who works in a Russian mine, with the purpose of explaining to him that the rest of the family has been killed after the Russian army, in a fit of obstinate pique, obliterated their entire village.

This book’s tellling in the second person (a rare thing in itself) as opposed to the first or third is a clever device which removes the reader from experiencing directly the shellshock of what Dastaguir himself has experienced: he is clearly in a confused and distressed state yet still feels he must do the right thing and withdraws into frequent internal debates about his proper course of action, one of his reference points being the eleventh century Persian epic The Book of Kings which is interwoven with various well-depicted dreamlike visions. Earth and Ashes is as far removed from the political causes for the execution of a war as any book could probably be, and focuses entirely on how this simple man is now forced to deal with an impossibly complex and traumatic event; Dastaguir, as a result, is given a troubled dignity that seems far beyond the reach of the rest of us. At times it seems like almost every sentence in this book is calculated to extract the reader’s sympathy, but the overall effect is rather positively overwhelming. Highly recommended.   PY

  Earth and Ashes was shortlisted for the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.


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