Lit­tle lo­cal dif­fi­cul­ties

The worst con­se­quences of war of­ten go un­seen, the Nor­we­gian tells Alastair Mabbott

The Herald - Arts - - Books -


The first time Asne Seier­stad went to Chech­nya she was treated to a seat in the for­ward cabin of a Rus­sian mil­i­tary plane, where of­fi­cers tempted her with vodka and aper­i­tifs. The sec­ond time she had to sneak across the border il­le­gally, in dis­guise. A lot had changed in 12 years, both for Seier­stad and for the coun­try that altered the course of her life.

Chech­nya lay in ru­ins af­ter fac­ing the armed might of the Rus­sian bear not once but twice. Rus­sia had in turn been the tar­get of reprisal at­tacks by Chechens, who were now the most hated eth­nic group in the coun­try. In Moscow, Putin had come to power and had a vested in­ter­est in stop­ping for­eign­ers go­ing to Chech­nya to see the dev­as­ta­tion for them­selves.

Seier­stad had changed, too. A Nor­we­gian-born scholar of Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture, she had al­lowed a steady glide into academia to be de­railed in Moscow in her early twen­ties when television pic­tures of tanks rolling into Grozny gal­vanised her into seek­ing out the truth for her­self. She re­ported on the sit­u­a­tion for the Nor­we­gian press. Af­ter that, other trou­bled con­flict zones beck­oned. “Iwant­to­cover­the­bigeventso­four­time,” she says. “But I hate dan­ger. I think it’s ter­ri­ble to be shot at or bombed, and if I’m in dan­ger I al­ways re­gret it. But then it goes well and I think, okay, I can carry on one more day. And then some­how I stay un­til the end. It’s not the war it­self, it’s the con­flict and maybe the drama.”

Her first book, With Their Backs to the World, fea­tured Serbs talk­ing about life be­fore and af­ter the fall of Milo­se­vic.

But it was the sec­ond book that got her no­ticed. The Book­seller of Kabul was writ­ten af­ter she had spent three months liv­ing with the fam­ily of an Afghan book­seller who made him­self out to be a heroic lib­eral op­po­nent to the Tal­iban but turned out, in private, to be a cruel and cal­lous pa­tri­arch. Shah Mo­hammed Rais, on whom the char­ac­ter was based, flew to Oslo and turned up on Seier­stad’s doorstep, threat­en­ing to sue. Legally, he hadn’t a leg to stand on, as he ad­mit­ted that what she’d writ­ten was true, but he ac­cused her of be­ing “dis­re­spect­ful” all the same for writ­ing so can­didly about his do­mes­tic life.

Seier­stad’s back­ground sounds like the tem­plate for a cos­mopoli­tan, lib­eral Scan­di­na­vian. She can speak five lan­guages flu­ently. Her fa­ther, Dag Seier­stad, is a Marx­ist po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, her mother, Froy­dis Gul­dahla, a well-known fem­i­nist au­thor. She spent part of her child­hood in France, and has lived in Mex­ico, China and in an artists’ col­lec­tive in Ser­bia.

Rais’s ar­rival in Oslo was a sym­bolic mo­ment. Af­ter cen­turies of Western­ers writ­ing about the peo­ple of the Third World, an au­thor was per­son­ally be­ing taken to task by one of her sub­jects. Many agreed with Rais, ar­gu­ing that an af­flu­ent Scan­di­na­vian had no right to stand in judge­ment over tra­di­tional Afghan cul­ture. Nev­er­the­less, the con­tro­versy helped the book on its way to be­com­ing an in­ter­na­tional hit. She then

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