Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Slovak, a Russian and some Afghans walk into a novel....

Through the good graces of Stork Press and the blogger Little Words, I was sent a review copy of the former's Freshta, and am nearing the end of this novel.  Freshta's pedigree of internationalism is impeccable, having been written in Czech (by Petra Prochazkova) and featuring a Russian narrator who marries into an Afghan family and settles in Kabul.  It's like looking at a map of Eurasia through a kaleidoscope.

The bulk of the novel is concerned with the period when the Western nations, spearheaded by the Americans and the British, are moving into Afghanistan, and the reverberations of 9/11 are still freshly sounding around the globe.  The book's  major preoccupation is with describing and commenting upon Afghanistan's culture and people at this point, including all the aspects one would expect (religion, sexual politics, economic hardship, the view of the West, etc...).  Prochazkova's device of using a converted outsider (a Russian woman who meets her future husband in Moscow and then marries him and joins his extended family) works well both in terms of giving a fresh perspective to this examination and in giving a natural form to the exposition of these subjects.  Moreover, the tone of voice adopted by Herra, the narrator, is (at first startlingly) light, which lifts the novel above the potential pitfalls of being over-ponderous or sounding too dutiful or didactic.  In keeping with this approach, there is much very successful humour in character description, situation and dialogue:
'When we first met, my future husband's rhapsodies about his family made me feel inferior.....I invented an actress aunt and when I was told off that actresses were often prostitutes I tried to embellish my family tree with a nuclear physicist uncle'.
Nobody in our family like Uncle Amin......he would laugh that horrid laugh of his that sounded like a hysterical little boy being circumcised.
The most remarkable character for me is the child Muhammad who, with his deformed body and eerie, eclectic knowledge, I read as a metaphor for what is produced when wildly diverse cultures interract, but who is a superb character in his own right.

This tone and approach by no means seal off the story from unpleasant territory, and the details gradually emerge of how the narrator's brother-in-law inflicts sadistic treatment upon his wife, which becomes one of the main drivers of this somewhat picaresque narrative. An effective contrast to the portrayal of the brother-in-law is Herra's husband, Nazir, who occupies a complex intersection of innate decency, sincere belief in traditional Afghan culture and a genuine love and compassion for his wife and family.  This is a rounded portrait that is credible and moving, and which has him veer from behaving with Western style tenderness and respect to Herra to administering physical and verbal rebukes to her when her behaviour stretches the envelope of his tolerance.

The novel's major weakness for me came in what I found to be a rather crude satire of the arrogance and unconscious imperialism with which the American aid workers enter Afghan life, but this is not unremitting, and some scenes involving these characters are very deftly handled.

I could not but recommend this novel to anyone wanting either a humane and balanced description of Afghan and traditional Muslim life or simply a highly engaging story with characters whose vividness is matched by their ability to generate empathy.

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