Well worth a read

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - A Curse On Dos­to­evsky Atiq Rahimi Chatto & Win­dus, 272 pages, fic­tion Re­view by SHARIL DEWA star2@thes­tar.com.my

“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.

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