''Dostoyevsky be Damned!''
The story is set in the war-torn Afghan capital in the early 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Civil war is raging in Kabul, with mujahidin warlords and pro-Soviet forces locked in a battle for supremacy. Normal life is a virtual impossibility, with bomb attacks and arbitrary detentions the order of the day.
In the heat of this politically complex situation, Rassul, a former student of law, commits a brutal murder. He kills the profiteer Nana Alia with an axe, after trying in vain to secure a loan for himself and his family by offering a watch as security. But Rassul does not act impulsively; he plans the deed in cold blood, carries the weapon hidden under his robes and comes specifically to kill the detested woman.
The splatter-style start of the novel, which confronts the reader with the gory details of the murder, serves as a ploy on the part of the narrator. Instead of introducing a regular detective novel storyline, the archaic murder scene brings him straight to the moral core of his story.
As Rassul is killing the old woman, an inspirational work of literature springs to mind: Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, a book that he read with enthusiasm while at university. While this thought-association does not hold Rassul back from the act of killing itself, in a flash it makes him aware of the fact that he will share the fate of Dostoyevsky's main protagonist, Raskolnikov: the money and jewels of his victim will be useless to him, and his conscience will torment him until he surrenders to the police and is brought before a judge.
No ordinary murder story
By using this device, Rahimi snaps the constraints of a limited murder saga in superb fashion. The novel may superficially describe the desperate errantry of a fickle murderer who cannot live with his guilt and finds no judge in a city ravaged by civil war. But through the congenial recourse to Dostoyevsky's novel, the much more general question of justice and punishment is pushed centre stage.
Using literary means alone, Rahimi succeeds in posing politically explosive questions of principle that can also be applied to contemporary Afghanistan; readers of the novel are inevitably confronted with the question as to whether since the end of Taliban rule in the year 2001, Afghanistan's legal situation has improved and whether there has been any progress in the safeguarding of women's rights.
When a mujahidin leader in the novel describes Rassul's deed as "a justifiable act", because the victim had been a dishonoured woman who deserved to die, readers will automatically make the link with recent statements from political leaders in Afghanistan on the question of equal rights for men and women. And perhaps with the latest report from "Human Rights Watch", which reaches a depressing conclusion regarding the sentences meted out to women in the Afghan penal system.
On the other hand, the fact that Rahimi's novel does not come unstuck through the potent example of Dostoyevsky's work, and that its moral intention does not make dry reading, is primarily due to the stylistic skill of this exceptional writer.
Clear language, sharp contrasts
Just as in his preceding novel, the prize-winning The Patience Stone (2009), the individual scenes are cut with filmic precision and the language is unfussy and crystal clear. Rassul's severe guilt pangs and his unrelenting attempts to atone for his guilt make for a brisk-paced narration and at the same time effect a curious blurring of the novel's backdrop, which is dominated by terror and fear.
Despite the precise language of the narrator, the outside world remains strangely out of focus; the buildings that Rassul enters are without contours, the people he meets appear shadowy; his beloved conceals herself beneath a blue chador that flashes up repeatedly throughout the novel and follows Rassul through the streets like a magical glimmer of hope. The entire milieu of the novel appears to be shrouded in the mists of hashish smoke that often envelop Rassul in the teahouses of Kabul.
This contrast between linguistic exactitude and visual haziness lends the novel a particular charm. Rassul's moral rigour is cleverly fragmented by the detailed observations and critical questioning of the narrator. Although the author has restricted his theme to what is a fundamentally abstract problem – the question of justice – owing to this delightful linguistic ambiguity, this problem turns out to be a thread that leads out of the hero's internal chaos.
In his desperate run against moral ignorance, Rassul completely isolates himself from his environment. After his act of murder, his voice fails him and over long passages of the novel, he cannot respond to any of the questions he is asked. Neither his bride nor his cousin, who try to help him, let him forget for a moment that he is a murderer.
Guilt without atonement
But how should he atone for his crime, in a religious-fundamentalist system dominated by violence and despotism, a system that only knows the ideologically informed distinction between martyr and infidel?
When Rassul at last stands in the bombed-out courthouse, the examining magistrate dealing with his case dispatches him quickly. The official explains what happens to thieves and apostates in the eyes of Sharia law. Rassul, who has found his voice again, insists that he is neither a thief nor an apostate, but because he studied in the Soviet Union, he is automatically assumed to be a Communist. Despite his candid confession, the judge remains obstinate and repeats that for the murder of a woman in the Islamic state, the "blood money rule" applies, giving the victim's family the right to determine Rassul's punishment.
One of the novel's parting shots is to highlight the fact that Sharia law allows no justice to be meted out in response to Rassul's crime and in accordance with the Taliban's jurisdiction, he cannot be sentenced for the murder of the old woman.
It is astonishing that at the novel's close, Rassul is nevertheless able to effect changes to the stagnant conditions of injustice, and that a happy end almost appears to be in the offing. But the novel draws its greatest strength from its atmospheric density. It is thrilling to read how Rassul wanders through gloomy prison cells and battered courtrooms, ending up at a kind of show trial where the dispensation of justice rescinds behind a blaring song rendition of Koran verses.
Despite the serious nature of the subject matter and the fact that the novel tackles a legal problem, one senses an ironic twinkle in the eye of the author, a touch that ensures that the novel remains bursting with humour and human warmth throughout.
© Qantara.de 2012
Verflucht sei Dostojewski ("Dostoyevsky be Damned!") is the title of the German translation of Atiq Rahimi's most recent novel, which has been published in Germany by Ullstein
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de