Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

It is 2002, a few months after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. A Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad, stumbles across a bookshop in Kabul. After months out with the troops a conversation with the bookseller about topics other than the war is refreshing. Yet Asne finds herself drawn back to Sultan Khan, the bookseller who defied both the Soviets and the Taliban to save precious books. She resolves to write about his life and that of his family. Welcomed as a guest into his home Asne gets to view a unique picture of the rapidly changing world of both the men and the women of Afghanistan.

After reading the 'Kabul Beauty School' I was determined to read 'The Bookseller of Kabul' in the hope that it would be as equally enjoyable. I must admit it was a book that was hard to put down and I read it within 24 hours. In some ways I wasn't expecting this after noting on the frontispiece that it was a translation, and my most recent experience of a translation (see my review of Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog) had not been positive. It was definitely easy to read and despite the slightly odd format where events are strung together and it is difficult to grasp when these events take place.

The book is extremely different from that of the 'Kabul Beauty School'. Asne features very little in the book, recording events rather than participating for the most part. Instead members of the family take it in turns to share the lime light. Men and women both get their stories told, although I felt that perhaps slightly more women had their stories recounted than men. It is also set at a different time in the liberation of Afghanistan. While Deborah Rodriguez writes about her experiences in 2003, Asne is covering a period in early 2002 when the Taliban have only just been ousted. Life was almost as restricted as it had been under the Taliban as people were too afraid to defy their rule, despite the fact they could no longer punish them. Also, Asne lives with a large family unit whereas Deborah has her own living space and makes her own small family unit. The list of differences between the books is endless and I would definitely recommend the pair as a reading comparison project. How can two women write such different accounts of one city, one country, one culture?

I do think that I read these books in the right order. Whilst the 'Kabul Beauty School' infused me with hope that things will get better, are getting better, 'The Bookseller of |Kabul' was less hopeful. I felt that the author was being as impartial as possible but I felt so sorry for almost all the members of the family. The first wife ousted from her position of authority, the unmarried sisters who are treated no better than slaves, the eldest son who desired to study, meet women and to have a life beyond the four walls of the bookshop etc etc. Sultan Khan is the ultimate patriarch with laudable ideals for a better Afghanistan yet with boundless wrath and an unforgiving nature for any family members who step out of line or question his authority. He is a man constricted by tradition and culture. By the end of the book you do wonder what effect Asne had on the family (something you wonder even more after reading the epilogue). It is hard to see what hope there is and whether things will ever change in the country. You also find yourself wondering if change is always a good thing and what sacrifices should be made.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and although it was hard to sympathise with the majority of characters did find myself drawn to them and eager to learn their fate. They are real people with foibles as much as anyone. People with contradictions to their character, but who all ultimately are trying to improve their lot, in whatever small ways they can. I would recommend this to anyone who has read 'The Kabul Beauty School' or is interested in learning more about the customs, traditions and history of Afghanistan. I have no doubt I will be adding Asne's other book 'A Hundred and One Days' which cover her time in Baghdad to my reading list. I would love to continue reading books of this ilk, but perhaps about countries other than Afghanistan.

*5 stars*

If you are interested in books about life in Afghanistan, have you tried 'The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez?

1 comment:

chica said...

cool, have been wanting to read this and Kabul beauty school. Glad to read good reviews of it.