Atiq Rahimi
translated by Polly McLean
Other Press ($16.95)

by Brooke Horvath

Afghanistan is the graveyard not only of empires but of countless Afghan war victims, tens of thousands of whom have died in the internecine struggle for power that commenced upon the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. It is in the midst of such fratricidal conflict that Atiq Rahimi—an Afghan writer and filmmaker who fled Afghanistan in 1984 and now lives in Paris—has set his fourth novel,The Patience Stone, winner of the 2008 Prix Goncourt.

As the novel opens, an unnamed woman is tending her comatose husband, shot not by a rival faction but by one of his comrades during a squabble. Beyond the window, its curtains “patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight,” the fight goes on amid daily life “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere.” The woman, mother of two small girls, attends the intravenous feeding tube and prays, peeks out the window or runs errands, feeds her girls and talks to her unhearing husband. Day follows day, each filled with anxious tedium, horror, and haplessness: the old woman next door wanders the rubble muttering crazed nonsense after finding her son and husband beheaded; patrols pass, and gunfire briefly shatters the silence; soldiers climb through the window to threaten and insult, the woman lying that she is a prostitute to avoid being raped; one of the soldiers returns to pay her to lose his virginity. Meanwhile, the husband lies unmoving, unresponsive, all appeals to Allah unavailing, and the woman, between tasks, sits and reflects, awash in dreams, memories, and confessions.

It is the sharing of her secrets with her husband—the woman’s first opportunity to speak her mind to him despite ten years of marriage—that constitutes the soul of this novel. As her husband lies there—his mouth “half-open,” his expression “strangely mocking”—he becomes her “patience stone,” a magical stone to which, according to legend, one can “confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone . . . until one fine day it explodes.” As the days pass, these revelations become increasingly intimate, uncensored, and confrontational:

She moves toward the man’s mouth. “I have never kissed you.” She kisses him. “The first time I went to kiss you on the lips, you pushed me away. I wanted it to be like in those Indian films. Perhaps you were scared—is that it?” she asks, looking amused. “Yes. You were scared because you didn’t know how to kiss a girl.” Her lips brush against the bushy beard. “Now I can do anything I want with you!”

Yet tenderness is never absent, for this woman understands that her husband, so brutal and domineering, has been himself a victim of a culture that has warped him, made him unfit for love. She speaks to him of his sexual clumsiness, his “empty presence,” his inability to share himself. She comes to see men’s violence as a form of cowardice, agreeing with something she recalls her aunt, the family’s black sheep, once saying: “those who don’t know how to make love, make war.” Near the novel’s close, she laughs dully and whispers, “when it’s hard to be a woman, it becomes hard to be a man, too!”

The woman’s story, told in bits and pieces, offers then a critique of Afghan sexual/social relations; Khaled Hosseini, author of the acclaimed bestseller The Kite Runner, praises The Patience Stone in his introduction to the book for “giving voice to those who, as the fable goes, suffer the most and cry out the least.” The irony, of course, is that the voiceless Afghan woman here has been given voice by a male novelist. Still, The Patience Stone remains a courageous book, for “there is nothing more taboo,” as the French-Iranian journalist Lila Azam Zanganeh puts it, “than talking about an Afghan woman’s body and her sexuality.”

Beyond sexual politics and social critique, and beyond the realistic if impressionistic sketches of a city wracked by indiscriminate bloodshed, what is of equal interest is the novel’s psychology of survival, the woman’s internal search for salvific truths to replace the deadening lies by which she has habitually lived. As Rahimi’s heroine reasons, “If all religion is to do with revelation, the revelation of a truth, then, mysang-e saboor [my patience stone], our story is a religion too!” In this respect, The Patience Stone may remind some readers of the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, which concerns the endurance of a man buried for more than twenty years in a lightless, vermin-ridden cell of a Moroccan prison. In both novels, the ability to endure turns on a refusal to abandon oneself coupled with a need to understand that self more fully.

Or perhaps the more appropriate comparison is to Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights. Both women, after all, are telling stories to save their lives and in the process hope to save their one-man audience. “Look, it’s been three weeks now that you’ve been living with a bullet in your neck,” the woman tells her husband. “That’s totally unheard of! No one can believe it, no one! You don’t eat, you don’t drink, and yet you’re still here! It’s a miracle. A miracle for me, and thanks to me. Your breath hangs on the telling of my secrets. . . . Don’t worry, there is no end to my secrets.” The message ought to be clear: stories can save us. To paraphrase the American poet William Carlos Williams, people die miserably every day for lack of such stories.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010