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by Yasmina Khadra, translated by John Cullen

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 2004
ISBN: 0-385-51001-2
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

A bleak, terse tale in which a harsh fundamentalist culture suppresses individual liberty and summarily victimizes its citizens.

The setting is Afghanistan’s war-torn capitol city under Taliban rule, and still reeling from the catastrophic Russian invasion—during which, one character remembers, “the terrified swallows dispersed under a barrage of missiles.” These swallows are both literal and metaphoric, as is dramatized in the powerful opening scene, of a woman condemned as a prostitute being publicly stoned to death. The pseudonymous Khadra (Wolf Dreams, p. 704, etc.), who has been identified as a former Algerian army officer, then focuses in turn on major characters who, initially, cross one another’s paths but do not actually meet. Mohsen Ramat, a young intellectual, is caught up in the frenzy of the prostitute’s “execution,” participates in the stoning, and thereafter endangers his marriage by confessing this to his wife Zunaira, a former “lawyer, who worked for women’s rights.” Meanwhile, Atiq Shaukat, a wounded veteran of the Russian War now working as a prison guard, tortuously reexamines his own relationships to both his drastically changed homeland and his wife Musarrat, who had nursed him back to health and is now dying from a painful enervating disease. Khadra’s unflinching portrayal of the scorching, suppurating environment in which these people struggle not to be noticed, is quite effective. And his principal characters’ trials are ingeniously echoed in stark glimpses of other stunted, redirected figures (e.g., a cynical entrepreneur, an aged cripple obsessed by fantasies of escape). But Mohsen and Atiq declaim incessantly, creating static patches that stand out glaringly in this story’s short compass—and are only partially redeemed by a powerful climax in which Zunaira becomes everything she most despises, and the jailer Atiq becomes the prisoner of his own best—and most foolhardy—impulses.

Still, despite such contrivances, Khadra’s latest is informed by a fine ironic intelligence, and its message is not an easy one to shake off.