Boyd Tonkin: Kabul stories of fame and blame

The week in books

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?

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable