Boyd Tonkin: Kabul stories of fame and blame
The week in books
Friday 30 July 2010
The original "Bookseller of Kabul", Shah Muhammad Rais, has for the past seven years doggedly pursued his complaint against Åsne Seierstad. The Norwegian foreign correspondent and author had lived with the bookseller's family in 2002 and then published an account of their lives that sold more than two million copies worldwide. Since then, the aggrieved Rais and some of his relatives have hired lawyers, issued writs and – not least – repeatedly confronted Seierstad on her home turf in Norway.
A few days ago, an Oslo court went some way towards endorsing members of the Rais family's claim that Seierstad hijacked, distorted and exploited their experiences. After a defamation suit brought in the name of the bookseller's second wife, Suraia Rais, it ordered the author and her publisher Cappelen Damm each to pay 125,000 kroner (c.£13,000) in damages. Seierstad will appeal, with her "astonished" defence counsel Cato Schiøtz promising to push the case up to the European level if necessary. It appears that Suraia Rais's lawyer stands to gain 50 per cent of any sums awarded, and that seven further members of the family may employ him to sue Seierstad.
In some quarters – notably, the British newspaper best known for holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness – the Oslo ruling has been reported with flagrant bias as an open-and-shut case. Wicked, ruthless Nordic blonde swoops on innocent Afghan clan, wins their trust, betrays their secrets, writes a bestseller, earns a fortune. At long last, the poor victims gain a measure of redress. End of story. Need I add that this is much, much more complicated tale than that – as the next courtroom stages ought to show?
True, Seierstad's book poses in the starkest form the sort of ethical dilemma than ought to weigh heavily on any Western travel writer or broadcaster. Try to enrich your reportage via a close relationship forged with individuals and (even more) their families, and you will run into competing motives and agendas. This will always be a minefield of crossed wires and mixed messages. Witnesses and informants can easily change their mind. They may agree in principle to revelations but then, under family pressure, feel upset and misled when sensitive stories become common knowledge. Did the writer commit errors and twist the truth – or did they in fact seal embarrassing realities into cold, cruel print?
These post-publication quarrels happen in the West as well, as any good reporter or biographer will know. Whether for an overnight despatch or a lovingly-crafted book, the literary process of selection, emphasis and dramatisation can convert agreed facts into a narrative that leaves its subjects with a sense of theft or trickery. In the Islamic world – and not only there – questions of family honour and public shame may count for even more than they would in the West.
And in every context, a stranger's scrutiny of private lives will invoke the shadow of betrayal – however conscientious the author. Janet Malcolm's book The Journalist and the Murderer is the classic text here. Safer just to consort with bigwigs, bureaucrats and "community leaders". Safer, much duller - and less "responsible" as well, if your mission is to bring home the full humanity of people in the lands that the West tends to treat as pieces on a geopolitical chessboard.
I write with a degree of partisanship too. I know Åsne Seierstad a little and have seen her behave far from Europe with what struck me as exemplary courtesy and candour. It's also abundantly clear that she has enemies in Norway who have milked this alleged scandal for every ounce of harm that they can do to her and her hard-won reputation. As far as I can judge, the major charges against her remain to be proven. And it belittles elements of the "liberal" press to assume her all-round guilt because it fits their stereotypes.
Sex and the Man Booker judge
Andrew Motion has complained – at least, I assume it was a complaint – that so few entries for the Man Booker Prize this year dared to write seriously about sex. What a shame, then, that one book that did so with coruscating verve and zest failed to trouble the judges. True Things About Me (Canongate) by the Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies (right) is also a first novel: a category absent from the 2010 long-list. Her first-person narrative of a young woman's obsessive, destructive affair has an unsettling pitch-black wit that truly makes its voice stand out from the bland MOR murmur of most "literary" fiction. Still, the Booker is not the only prize: other juries, take note.
The end of a quango's shelf-life
Few tears will be shed over the execution of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), felled this week in the quango-hunt. After all, not many people outside the closed circles of cultural bureaucracy ever knew what it did in the first place. Well, it did serve as co-ordinator-cum-champion for public-library services, although not a terribly robust one. Even from the name you can tell that MLA uneasily fused several roles. And museum advocacy looked its strongest suit. Now libraries, which always struggle to speak with a unified voice, will have one fewer defender in the corridors of power. MLA tasks will, it seems, pass into other hands. Whose? How? When? Ask Jeremy Hunt. As councils slash spending and look for relatively pain-free cuts, local closures will pick off branch after branch with, I fear, a muted outcry. The UK Film Council - also axed this week – has luvvies galore to stamp their starry feet. Why do few literary celebs stand up noisily for the libraries that bring them many new readers?
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