Monday, 16 July 2012
The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad
The book tells the story of the Khan family, the head of which, Sultan Khan, is the bookseller of the title. The writer was a journalist from Norway who stayed with the family while working in Afghanistan and documented their story as a piece of literature.
The chapters focus on a different family member each time, relaying incidents that happened while she was with them, and the family members thoughts and opinions come from conversations that she had with them, we are told in the foreward.
The chapters cover new marriage proposals, trips to the market or the hammam with the female members, a trip to Pakistan with one of the sons, an attempt to join a night school class by one of the daughters, amongst others. We explore their characters and sense of survival, in a damaged city in a country that has such a violent, shifting history. Tradition holds the family together but suppresses various members in accordance with a hierarchy which is mainly dependent on your sex. Women are are given little opportunity to be independent and yet are criticised for being dependent on the male members, giving them licence to dish out abuse whenever it suits them. The younger male members, subject to the whims of their egotistical elders, take out their frustrations on those below them in the pecking order, so much so that the youngest daughter is kept at home as an unpaid and despised slave for the rest of the family. Sultan is a respected business man and his word is the law. He can treat his family however he likes because society has decreed him all powerful, so selfishness and lack of regard are part of everyday life.
Since this book was published the Khan family have rejected their portrayal, especially Sultan (not his real name). I was confused about the title, because this is more about the bookseller's family than the bookseller himself so I kept wondering when it was getting back to the main protaganist until I realised that it was only marginally about him.
The bulk of this book belongs to the women, wives, daughters, sisters, who also have their hierarchy, the youngest being bottom of the pile entirely. This may be because the writer was allowed to get closer to these members, into their confidence being female, or maybe because their plight interested her more. I couldn't help feeling that some of their opinions about their plight were more the authors than the women themselves though and it was here that I had a problem reading the book.
I really do not like Western writers portraying other cultures as repressive, backward or cruel in an unbalanced or arrogant way. I felt the writing was coming from a viewpoint that was situated on a pedestal looking down. Nearly all of it was negative. There was little said about affection, love, friendship. Do these things not exist in Afghanistan? The whole of this book seemed to be inviting you to sneer and be horrified at how awful Afghani family life is, and God help you if you are a girl. Granted, cruelties exist in all cultures, and need to be spoken of, but Westerners need to be careful not to dwell only on these things. Finding beauty alongside their difficulties, in moments or human relationships allows us to connect to them in some way, otherwise it can seem like a diatribe of derision.
I wonder whether the mistake here is in writing this as a literary work rather than a journalistic piece. I did actually like the chapter in the market describing the difficulties of wearing the Burkhas, or the women washing at the hammam, mainly because the writing became more interesting and descriptive, the women becoming people, interacting with one another. The rest of the book was not this way though. There seemed to be no relief for any of them, no special times, no pride in each other, not even a favourite meal or food spoken of.
The complicated and violent history of the region is dealt with so briefly, mostly in one chapter at the beginning, that I felt I was not given sufficient information to understand their differences. It ended up feeling like a one dimensional story that I didn't fully trust to be authentic to the people that it spoke about.
Discussion Questions about The Bookseller of Kabul can be found by using the link. I think there is plenty to talk about for book groups.
An opinion about the inaccuracies of the book can be read by using the link.
It is worth noting that my opinions about this book were formed during reading it or shortly afterwards. The controversy surrounding the legal cases about the authenticity of the opinions reported came to me later while reading around it for my post, adding further dimension to an already sensitive subject. They did not shape my feelings for the book, my concerns for which I had already voiced to others while reading it.