The Goncourt Prize is a French Literature prize given to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Apparently this novel was specifically written in a non-mother tongue of French (by an Afghan writer) as he found writing in Persian could cause “involuntary self-censorship”.
Although this is more a novella and, by default, short in stature (my edition is 136 pages) this is certainly not short on content. Set in a single room “somewhere in Afghanistan or somewhere else” this is the story of a young woman sitting at her comatose husband’s bedside. He has been shot in the neck and our story begins with her reciting prayers and counting the worry beads.
Far away, somewhere in the city, a bomb explodes. The violence destroys a few houses perhaps, a few dreams. There’s a counter attack. The retaliations tear through the heavy midday silence, shaking the window panes but not waking the children. For a moment – just two prayer beads – the woman’s shoulders stop moving. She puts the bottle of eye-drops back in her pocket. Murmurs ‘Al-Qahhar’. Repeats ‘Al-Qahhar’. Repeats it each time the man takes a breath. And with every repetition, slips one of the prayer beads through her fingers.
One cycle of the prayer beads is complete. Ninety-nine beads. Ninety-nine times ‘Al-Qahhar’.
Finally she gathers up the courage to speak her first ever words to her husband. Uncensored words, words which tell her tale, define her life, her identity. And as the novel progresses she unwinds, both mentally and spiritually and her tale becomes a confession to the “Patience Stone”, a mythical Persian stone that all the world’s unfortunates can tell their sorrows to.
The confessions to her husband, cover her love, her rage, her suppressed sexual desires and a whole lot more (if I revealed it would be a spoiler alert). Written in short tight sentences and paragraphs and with the restrictions of the room, the veils and more this is a very moving story of an oft ignored section of our world.
Before she has picked up her veil, these words burst from her mouth: ‘Sang-e sabur!’ She jumps. ‘That’s the name of the stone, sang-e sabur, the patience stone! The magic stone!’ She crouches down next to the man. ‘Yes, you, you are my sang-e sabur!’ She strokes his face gently, as if actually touching a precious stone. ‘I’m going to tell you everything, my sang-e sabur. Everything. Until I set myself free from my pain, and my suffering, and until you, you…’ She leaves the rest unsaid. Letting the man imagine it.
Atiq Rahimi was primarily a documentary film maker before moving to writing and this book with its single setting of the room where our main protagonist’s husband lies in a coma shows all the hallmarks of cinematic style. Any action that takes place outside of the room is anonymous, removed and secondary to our story of coming out.
An important exploration of the plight of women in Afghanistan this is a novella that I would highly recommend.