Afghanistan teeters on the brink of the abyss in this searing historical novel.
Shansab’s tale is set in 1978, shortly before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that began decades of war. It follows a cast of characters attuned to the country’s brewing cataclysm—some dreading it and others jockeying to take advantage of it. At one pole is Habib Dhil, a wealthy cloth manufacturer who wants to stay out of the snake pit of Afghan politics; however, this is made difficult by his affair with the prime minister’s daughter (who’s betrothed to the king’s son) and by mounting factional turmoil that causes his employee to be charged with sedition. At the other pole is Habib’s boyhood friend Alam Gol, an army officer who’s eager for advancement and ready to take on the dirtiest assignments to get it—even assassinating a government leader. As Habib’s and Alam’s seemingly divergent paths begin to cross, Habib’s unwillingness to get his hands dirty backfires disastrously, and Alam’s determination to play the game requires acts he can’t stomach. All the people and events here are fictional—even the king—but Shansab does convincingly convey a sense of the poisonous social climate under Afghanistan’s corrupt 1970s governments. For Afghanis with resources, life was an endless chess game of bribery and influence-seeking; for those without, life meant subjection to brutal, capricious officials, which bred seething resentment, especially among peasants who later became mujahedeen and militia gunmen. The author’s prose is vigorous yet atmospheric, ruminative and sometimes-poetic (“Shrouded in darkness, the snow-clogged passes, the narrow gorges, and the endless succession of jagged peaks remained invisible”). He shows readers the ragged poverty and paranoia of Kabul and mountain villages; the interplay of power and deference between the mighty and the humble; and the tense psychology of people enmeshed in Kafkaesque confrontations that pivot from civility to violence in a heartbeat. The result is a subtle, gripping novel about the roots of Afghanistan’s tragedy.
A fine evocation of a crucial era in Afghanistan, suffused with pent-up violence.