Well worth a read
“FOR every crime, there must be a punishment....”
So begins A Curse On Dostoevsky, Afghan-born writer Atiq Rahimi’s latest opus. In this fabulous re-imagining of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel, Crime And Punishment (1866), Rahimi’s protagonist is Rassoul, an Afghani who studied Russian literature in Leningrad. He’s now back in Afghanistan and living in a squalid little room filled with books by Russian authors, Dostoevsky being one. The other great love of Rassoul’s life is his fiancé, Sophia, who possesses such power over him that Rassoul would do anything for her.
In either a homage to or a cheeky take on Crime And Punishment, Rahimi recreates the opening scene of Dostoevsky’s novel by introducing Rassoul fresh from committing a murder, axe in hand, cold body at his feet, and blood on the floor.
Rassoul, being such a fan of Dostoevsky’s novel, identifies closely with Crime And Punishment’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, and thinks he is Dostoevsky’s anti-hero. So like Raskolnikov, following the murder, Rassoul at first runs away and then searches for the meaning of his crime. Through tortured internal monologues, Rassoul tries to makes sense of the crime he committed, wondering if murdering someone would have made Sophia love him more and, most disturbingly, why his crime remains unpunished.
Through those monologues, Rahimi paints a picture of an Afghanistan that is far from peaceful, and a Kabul that is in conflict with itself and the foreigners who have invaded the country. Even though A Curse does not give a specific time frame, there are hints that the Afghan militants in charge of the country are vehemently antiRussian, which indicates that the novel is set in the early 1980s, during the Soviet Union’s war with Afghanistan.
Although Rassoul’s conscience informs him that he should be punished, part of him is also afraid of what awaits him should he be caught. While the debate between right and wrong rages inside Rassoul’s head, Afghanistan, too, finds herself fighting on two fronts, against suspected communist followers and the Soviet invaders.
When Rassoul returns to the scene of his crime, a thousand possibilities await him. It is perhaps due to Rahimi’s genius that he does not offer a concrete solution for Rassoul. The very open ending allows each reader to determine the fate of this tortured anti-hero.
It can be argued that the anguish and anger that Rassoul feels not only towards his crime but also the fact that it has gone unpunished can also be read as the anguish and anger that many – if not all – people living in a war-torn country feel. And Rassoul’s conscience debating right and wrong can also be seen as a metaphor for the civil war in Afghanistan that had Afghanis fighting against each other for years, so long, in fact, that they had forgotten why they fight.
Rahimi seems to have perfected the art of telling tales of life in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, giving A Curse On Dostoevsky a feel of acute airless paranoia, hopelessness, desperation and frustration, mixed with an undertow of anger that permeated the Afghan landscape of that particular era.
Though translated works often lose the nuances of their languages of origin, A Curse On Dostoevsky – originally written in French – manages to retain a distinct flavour of desperation and fading hope and the ever-growing anger of a man trying to make sense of his life, his crime, and the social injustice of his crime going unpunished.
Although A Curse On Dostoevsky is very much influenced by Crime And Punishment, this novel is very much about Rahimi’s thoughts about his birth country, which continues to battle with herself decades after the Soviet invasion. Perhaps Rahimi sees parallels between Rassoul’s crime going unpunished and the invasion of his country by outsiders going unpunished, even ignored, by the rest of the world.
For those who are not familiar with Rahimi’s works, A Curse On Dostoevsky is a good starting point. For those who love Middle Eastern literature or want to compare Rahimi’s version with Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, this novel should be considered. Either way, it is well worth a read.