A fragmentary picture of northern Afghanistan in the wake of the 1979 Russian invasion emerges from this terse debut (really a long story) by an Afghan-born documentary filmmaker now based in Paris.
The focal character is Dastaguir, an elderly villager addressed directly by Rahimi’s use of second-person narration. We meet Dastaguir, accompanied by his young grandson Yassim, at a remote checkpoint where Dastaguir hopes to hitch a ride to the coal mine where his son Murad (Yassim’s father) works. Brief conversations with a phlegmatic gatekeeper, a solicitous storekeeper, and an accommodating truck driver precede Dastaguir’s arrival at the mine—a place where his fear of confronting Murad with the truth (of their village’s destruction, and the death of Murad’s wife Zeyneb) is ironically preempted, leaving the old man no option but to return to his ruined “home.” That’s all there is to this underplotted tale, which reveals only the most basic information about its characters (Yassim has been deafened by the bombing, Murad was briefly imprisoned for assaulting a man who made indecent advances to Zeyneb, Dastaguir is addicted to chewing tobacco), while allowing disproportionate space to anguished direct and rhetorical questions (e.g., Yassim’s “have the Russians come and taken away everyone’s voice?”). There’s potential interest in Dastaguir’s hallucinations of the carnage he and his grandson have survived, and in a suggestion that his wary relationship to Murad (whom he fears “killing” with the news he bears) echoes the savage battle between estranged father and son Rostam and Sohrab in the classical Persian epic The Book of Kings— but Rahimi develops neither possibility, settling instead for emotional reiterations of the plight of the Afghan people.
A heartfelt lament that might indeed make a superb storyboard for a dramatic film. But it isn’t much of a novel.