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