24 June 2012

Atiq Rahimi, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, 2002

Rahimi’s first novel Earth and Ashes was impressive enough to actually alter the course of my reading and look much more at fiction from the point of view of those affected by war. Now with A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear Rahimi revisits the same period – the 1970s Russian invasion of Afghanistan – but the result is far less direct or, for that matter, clear. Farhad, a Kabul student, has been badly beaten by occupying Soviet soldiers, and he is taken in by an unknown Afghan woman and her son, who strangely refers to him as ‘father’. But her act of kindness subjects both of them, and their families, to rules of honour as rigid and unbreakable as the curfew imposed by the communist invaders. For his second outing Rahimi has chosen to write in a prose that is often as deliberately obfuscating as it is endlessly digressive – the narrative jumps back and forth in time, mostly while the narrator spends a great deal of effort trying to understand (or failing that, imagine) the circumstances of those around him, as if his own situation wasn’t bad enough and his appetite for personal disaster has been left unsated. His own survival seems less important than it ought to be for a man in his position, and this is the most unconvincing aspect of the story. The half-awake disorientation that fills the first fifty pages could have been condensed into twenty, there is a most excellently written chapter at a pivotal moment halfway through, but the closing pages feel like the threads of a once-strong rope unravelling. The after-effect is that of a clearly imagined story blurred by too many layers of meaning added after possibly too many rewrites; Rahimi clearly knows what he means to say, but this over-reliance on overcooked prose means his story falls too far short of what may once have been a worthwhile and much better communicated idea.  PY


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