Top positive review
Tales from Afghanistan
on 29 March 2016
A beautifully written story with a lyrical dream like quality to it, I've really enjoyed the read.
The story begins with two young siblings utterly devoted to each other growing up in an impoverished Afghan village in the 1950s. They have an uncle who works as a chauffeur for a rich family in Kabul, a city which could hardly be different to poverty ridden little village they live in. Worst still the beautiful lady of the house wears short dresses, makeup and goes to the cinema to watch films, shocking stuff. If that wasn't bad enough she also writes erotic poetry....The uncle is deeply in love with her but sadly she is not interested in him, when his car arrives in the village of the children people are fascinated by him, it's the only car they've ever scene. We follow the Uncle right the way up to old age, people begin to disappear from his life, wars happen, followed by gangs which take over the streets, he inherits the mansion of the former owners but is unable to maintain it and it crumbles. Later the Taliban take over before being overthrown by the US. The uncle pens a letter to his English language teacher dated 2002 in which he recounts his long life. It's a life filled with interesting experiences but also tainted by sadness and society is gradually ruined around him.
The novel employs lots of different structures to develop the story, characters talking to each-other, characters talking to themselves, characters being interviewed, characters writing letters, characters looking back at their lives...
The story switches to France in the 1970s, where the beautiful wife from Kabul and the little girl from the village live together as mother and daughter. I loved the way the book captured the mood of the times and the contrast between the two women. The daughter being forced to live under her mother's shadow and self-centered lifestyle. The book plays with the history of the mother. She makes lots of claims about her early life, her daughter is skeptical knowing her better than most. We all have a tendency to miss-remembers or have selective memories though. The lack of clarity is interesting. Was her father an intolerant brute and misgonist or was he a loving father worried about his wild self-destructive daughter?
The story follows different characters at different points, affected by the changes in Afghan and world history, each with a plausible arc. There is a young boy who grows up adoring his well respected village elder father, who in his eyes is something of legend, a war hero and a blessing to his people. The boy wants for nothing, although his family must employ bodyguards to protect them from "the wrong kind of people." His young mother lives a simple shallow kind of life, enjoying the money, modern luxuriates and devoting herself to endless fitness sessions in front of the TV. An encounter with another boy in the area changes the sons view of the world though, and he comes to realise his father is more like a mafia Godfather than a hero. There's no firm easy resolution to all the characters' problems in these stories, the best you can say is that the arrive at a better understanding of the world and are able to accommodate this.
One critique I'd make of the writing is a lot of the characters seem to have slightly unrealistic professions, a lot of them seem to be a doctor or an artist or a poet or a mathematician or an actress or a restaurant owner, the later seemingly a bit more plausible than most of the others. To be fair to the author though all these people still lead very complex & sometimes rather unsatisfying lives.