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The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra [review]

swallows-of-kabul-montageThe Swallows of Kabul is not a novel which makes for comfortable reading. How can it be otherwise when it opens with the public execution of a woman in which one of the characters, a man who has hitherto shown no propensity for anything other than goodness, finds himself picking up a stone and joining in? This kind of heightened emotion is much in evidence in the rest of this novel, often born out of the despair of people who try to exist (live would be too strong a word) in a world controlled by the Taliban.

Yasmina Khadra takes us deep into the heart of the city of Kabul “a city in an advanced stage of decomposition” and into the lives of two couples. Moshen, the son of wealthy grocers, and his beautiful wife Zunaira have found their freedom and their hopes shattered. He can no longer aspire to become a diplomat while she, once a magistrate and a champion for women’s rights,  stays at home unwilling to comply with the requirement she is veiled whenever in public.

Explaining her resistance to the burqa, Zunaira tells her husband:

Of all the burdens that have put on us, that is the most degrading. The Shirt of Nessus wouldn’t do as much damage to my dignity as that wretched getup. It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object. … If I put that damned veil on I’m neither a human being nor an animal, I’m just an affront, a disgrace, a blemish that has to be hidden. That’s too hard to deal with. Especially for someone who was a lawyer, who worked for women’s rights. Don’t ask me to give up my name, my features, the color of my eyes, and the shape of my lips so I can walk through squalor and desolation.

One day, her husband makes a special appeal that she put aside her reservations so they can go out together and rekindle their evening walks from the old days. These were the days he recalls when “the windows of the larger stores didn’t have much to offer, but no one came up to you and struck you in the face with a whip”. Swayed by his love she does put on her burqa and goes out into the streets – but the result is disastrous.

Elsewhere in the city the ex-mujahedin Atiq Shaukat at least has a job though his soul is being nibbled away by his work guarding those who are condemned to death. Life is no better at home: his wife Musarrat suffers from an illness it seems no doctor can identify let alone cure and they live in a hovel. From separate sides of the city, the lives of these four intersect.

I think my appreciation of The Swallows of Kabul was much higher at the start than by the end.  Khadra vividly evokes a country reeling from war. Afghanistan’s countryside,” declares the narrator, “is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries.  Ruination is everywhere. Former soldiers who fought during the Soviet occupation huddle outside the Mosque, retelling stories of their former campaigns and heroism that cost them some of their limbs.  The city’s elderly people have become beggars gathering like ravenous dogs outside homes where charitable citizens leave a few grains of rice for the destitute. Taliban thugs roam the streets with whips.  The penalty for truth is death. Death has become a form of entertainment.

Khadra tries to penetrate under the skin of this beseiged city and into the souls of its women who once  “pirouetted in their perfumes like gusts of warm air” but are now reduced to walking in their husband’s shadows. And to some extent it works. Despite the atmosphere of  unremitting gloom and despondency I did feel that I was getting a glimpse of how obsession with an ideology can destroy lives.  But this didn’t overcome my reservations about the final stages of the novel which see Atiq fall so desperately, hopelessly in love that he puts his life at risk. Without revealing the exact nature of his actions which would spoil the novel for other readers, all I can say is that Khadra asks us to believe that the man is so besotted he loses all reason. This is a man who, admittedly had come to hate his job, but I couldn’t buy into the idea that he would make his passion so evident that he would risk questions from the Taliban. Nor could I buy into the idea that his hitherto non-descript and silent wife would summon enough courage to give him a way out by putting herself forward as a sacrificial lamb.

I wanted to like The Swallows of Kabul more than I did. I see there are some rather mixed reviews of it elsewhere with The Guardian and Kim at Reading Matters having a higher opinion than I did while Lisa at ANZLitLovers blog admitted she really disliked the book. Click on the links to see their thoughts.

Footnotes

The Book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra was published in 2004 by William Heinemann. My edition is in paperback from Vintage Books 2005. Translation from the French is by John Cullen.

The Author: Yasmina Khadra is the pen-name of an Algerian army officer who adopted a feminine name to avoid censorship by the army. The Swallows of Kabul is his third novel. You can hear him read an extract from the novel on the BBC World Service World Book Club site

Why I read this book: I bought this when I embarked on my world literature project  where I intended to read novels by authors from 50 different countries in the world. This was selected to represent Algeria. 

The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

dictators last nightNot too many years ago it was rare to turn on the TV news without being confronted by images of the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. A controversial figure from the time he seized power, his brand of nationalism, lack of regard for human rights and his financial support of revolutionary militants across the world brought him into conflict with the USA and UK. Even his death in October 2011 was mired with controversy with allegations he was found cowering in a disused pipe, then beaten and tortured by rebel soldiers.

Yasmina Khadra re-creates that final night in The Dictator’s Last Night. Gaddafi is holed up in a disused school in home city of Sirte having been forced to retreat after the fall of Tripoli. His army is in tatters. He’s besieged by NATO aerial attacks  and surrounded by rebel troops of the National Transitional Council (NTC). His people have turned against him. He no longer knows who he can trust. Waiting for reinforcements and a convoy that will enable him to break through enemy lines and find refuge in another country, he reflects on his life as “Brotherly Leader” of his nation.

This is a portrait of a man of humble origins who is acutely sensitive to slights about his illegitimate descent from an impoverished Bedouin goat herder. He counters this by associating himself with the prophet Muhammad and with Isa Ibn Maryam, (Jesus Christ in the Koran),  neither of whom knew their fathers. Alternately defiant and despondent, he remains supremely assured of his status as the chosen one”, the one who enacts God’s will.

People say I am a megalomaniac. It is not true. I am an exceptional being, providence incarnate, envied by the gods, able to make a faith of his cause.

Feeling betrayed by aides he believes are incompetent, he cannot even find comfort that his legacy will survive. He gave his people justice, replaced slums with sparkling shops and esplanades, built ultra modern hospitals but his crowning achievements are no more. Buildings are desecrated, the city pillaged, his portraits disfigured and his slogans eliminated. In truth he realises his people lied to him when they said they loved him.

I feared treachery inside my palaces but it was creeping up on me unsuspected in the towns and villages. … I should have dealt with them the way I dealt with dissidents, been more severe with them, distrusted them more. … If  I had my time again I would exterminate half the nation. Lock them up in camps to show them what real work is, and watch them die in the attempt.

By restricting the action to the span of one night  Khadra brings an element of dramatic tension to the novella.  The ending is graphic though not gratuitously so. The main issue for me however was that I felt the book lacked depth. I wanted more of an analysis of Gaddafi’s character but every time the novel edged towards an insightful point, it seemed to pull back. I was left with a disappointingly rather predictable portrait of an unstable mind who injects fear into all around him.

End Notes

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name for Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul, and the author of the best-selling The Swallows of Kabul. The Dictator’s Last Night is published by Gallic Books and translated from the French original (La dernière nuit du raïs) by Julian Evans. I received an advance courtesy via NetGalley.

Snapshot October 2015

Autumn leavesOctober 1 saw me on a business trip to Germany. Here’s a snapshot of what I was doing on that day.

Reading

Unusually for me I had three novels on the go on this date. Reading two simultaneously is something I can manage if they are very different genres/styles but I’ve never before had three in progress.

After a run of novels with rather dark subjects I was in need of some lighter fare. Since I don’t tend to enjoy comedy in novels, “lighter fare” for me usually means crime fiction. I had Silence of the Sea by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottiron my TBR from Christmas last year which I thought I’d better read before this year’s festive event (otherwise I’ll get challenged why I want more books as gifts when I haven’t read the ones I got last time etc etc). It’s not as good as the review in the Sunday Times suggested it would be but it fitted the need at the time. More than half way through the novel, I realised that my library edition of the Booker shortlisted title The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma couldn’t be renewed so I switched to that one. But then at short notice I was asked to take this trip to Germany and didn’t want to lug a hard cover book with me. Which is how I ended up taking my Kindle and reading The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra, an advance copy via NetGalley and publication date is coming up fast.

Listening

I finished All the Light we Cannot See last week eventually. It only really perked up for me in the last quarter. I haven’t started anything new yet, just catching up on some podcasts. For my next audiobook I’m torn between Can you Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope and The Human Factor by Graham Greene. I’m a Greene fan and this is one I’ve not come across before. On the other hand I also like Trollope… Hm too many decisions.

Watching

Knowing I’d be restricted in the choice of English language TV challenges I armed myself for my trip with a DVD from Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series. No matter how many times I’ve seen these dramatised monologues I still love them. This time I indulged in one of my favourites: A Cream Cracker Under the Settee in which Thora Bird turns in a stunning performance as the 79-year-old Dora who falls while trying to do a spot of dusting. Alone and injured she worries that the only place left for her is a care home which she considers abhorrent. She decides she would rather die on her own in pain than live in a place where everyone is expected to sing “I’m H.A.P.P.Y. I’m H.A.P.P.Y”. Simply sublime.

Carried away and now counting the cost

It is not a good idea at 5am on a Sunday morning to begin browsing the Net Galley catalogue of titles available for review. Of course that only became apparent a few weeks later when the request approvals began coming through and I realised a) how many I had requested b) how much reading I would need to do between now and mid November.

I’m not complaining however. Having the ability to read books by authors I enjoy or to explore writers I’m not familiar with, is part of the pleasure of the Net Galley program. I don’t always get around to reading everything but if I do read the title, then I make sure to write a review. It seems a fair deal to me.

Awaiting me are the following:

The secret chordThe Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: this is one I’m not entirely sue about. I enjoyed her novel Year of Wonders which is about a village in the Peak District in England which seals itself off from the world to prevent the spread of the plague. I know she does extensive research into her chosen periods to ensure her novels sound authentic. It’s really that I don’t know whether the subject matter of The Secret Chord, the life of King David from humble shepherd to despotic king,  is to my taste given I have little interest in religious history. But I could be pleasantly surprised and at least I will learn something in the process of reading.

man tigerMan Tiger by Eka Kurniawan is a wild card choice for me. Kurniawan has been named as a rising star from Indonesia and compared (favourably) to Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Her latest novel, set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean,  tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger.

the dictators last nightThe Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

I must be one of the few people on the planet yet to read Khadra’s best selling Swallows of Kabul (ok, a bit of an exaggeration I know). I do have it in the bookshelves, just haven’t got around to it yet. The Dictator’s Last Night sounded too good to miss however. It’s focus is a figure whose name has long been associated with authoritarian political leadership and abuse of human rights: the former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. Khadra imagines the leader hiding out in his home town in the dying days of the Libyan civilc war. As he awaits a convey to take him and his advisors out of the danger zone, he reflects on his life, his animosity towards the West and the ingratitude of his fellow countrymen.

the little red chairsThe Little Red Chairs by Edna O’brien: She may be in her 80s now but Edna O’Brien is giving no sign she’s ready to throw in the writing towel. When her memoir The Country Girl came out a few years ago there was much speculation it would be her last published work. She’s proved everyone wrong with The Little Red Chairs, a story of the consequences of a fatal attraction. A war criminal on the run from the Balkans settles in a small Irish community where he pretends to be a faith healer. The community fall under his spell but he proves to be fatally attractive to one local woman in particular.

Paris NocturneParis Nocturne by Patrick Modiano: How could I possibly resist a noir work from the Nobel Laureate? Especially given that atmospheric cover….

This novel begins with a nighttime accident on the streets of Paris. An unnamed narrator is hit by a car whose driver he vaguely recalls having met before and then experiences a series of mysterious events. They culminate  with an envelope stuffed full of bank notes being stuffed into his hand. Libération called this book “perfect” while L’Express described it as “cloaked in darkness, but it is a novel that is turned toward the light.”

the japanese loverAnd finally I have The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. It’s fair to say that I have not yet warmed to Allende. But she has a huge following and a friend keeps raving about her  so I thought she deserved another chance.  As the title suggests this is a romance. In it we see a young Polish girl meet in San Fransisco and fall in love with the Japanese man employed as the family’s gardner. Their relationship is tested when in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Japanese residents in the US are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Fast forward to modern day San Francisco and the secrets of a passion lasting seventy years are revealed.

Any of these books appeal to you? or maybe you’ve already read some of them?

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