Earth and Ashes
Earth and Ashes - Atiq Rahimi Chatto & Windus 2002 52 pages , £8.99 , HB
It's a cliche, I know, but often the most complex stories can be told in the simplest of ways (often the best, the most direct and concussive impact is caused by the sandwich dropped from the skyscraper) - Earth and Ashes is one such sandwich.
Dastaguir is travelling with his nephew Yassin. They are on their way to see Murad, Dastaguir's son and Yassin's father. They have bad news. Russians attacked the village. Everybody is dead. Murad's wife. Murad's mother. Their whole family. Everybody's family. The village has been burned to the ground. Dastaguir does not know how Murad will take it. The closest comparison he can make without speaking with his boy is, the time a neighbour made a suggestion to Murad's wife, Murad took to the man with a spade, served six months in prison. But what can be done when a town has been laid waste? And who is there anyway to stand and face the blame?
Atiq Rahimi's briefest of brief stories (the book runs to a mere 52 pages and yet you can't help but feel each word as the pounding of a historical hand to the head) recounts just one story in the troubled, troubled history of Afghanistan (currently the most mined, the most bombed, area of earth on the globe). The prose is bleached and precise, and yet even within the confines of such precision there are tangential fever-fueled dreams on a par with those you might find in Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl or even, at times, Ben Okri's The Famished Road. Of course the book ends in a kind of tragedy because, it seems, tragedy is all that is possible (shame walking hand-in-hand with assault, religion binding the hands not tied as prisoners of war). In lots of ways the book recounts the continuation of a historical trap, a trap so laboured over, a trap so firmly wrought in place as to suspend all who finds themselves caught like flies in amber. There are kindnesses to be had in such a society, certainly (such as the kindness of the shopkeeper, Mirza Qadir), but the kindnesses are a product of horror, a reaction to horror, the only path open after a life of death and bombs and murder and betrayal and loss.
At one point, Dastaguir asks what kind of God would allow such horror to beset a nation, wonders what his people have done to be so forsaken . . . It's a lament like a wolf howl or a knife blade to the throat. It has that effect.
Any Cop?: Effortlessly straddling both the political and the human(e), Earth and Ashes is a voice from the other side, a glimpse beneath the pandemonium of the war on terror and vindication (if vindication were needed) that bombs are plainly not the answer.
This review first appeared on www.bookmunch.co.uk.
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