A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, by Atiq Rahimi, trans Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari

Lost figures in an Afghan carpet
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In a distillation of dream and fear, Atiq Rahimi reduces the thousand rooms of his novel's echoing title to just one, in a widow's house in Kabul with white walls and a carpet. Or it might be two, three, even four rooms, if a grave-sized hole, the gap inside a rolled-up carpet in a car or the interior of a mosque can count as rooms. Fear is never absent from any of these spaces, but the fearful often have time on their hands... when the scrape of the jackboot or the voice of the checkpoint guard have gone quiet, or consciousness ebbs and flows, dreams and memories can enter in.

The novel is set in 1979, a time of reckless political upheaval in Afghanistan just before the Soviet Union's vain attempt to impose order by invasion. Using a technique of total immersion, Atiq Rahimi plunges the reader straight into the pain and bewilderment of a character thinking in the first person, so wounded by a brutal attack that he hardly knows whether he is awake or asleep, alive or dead, as he lies in a roadside sewer, hearing a child's voice calling him "Father". This is a short novel, and the reader is a quarter of the way through before learning that the confused thoughts we are sharing are those of Farhad, an educated young man who has been out drinking with a friend and forgotten the curfew.

Whether the dire consequences follow simply from that transgression remains an unanswered question. But we gradually gather why the little boy dreams of him as "Father", although Farhad is no one's father, and why the woman who rescues him no longer worries about taking risks. In fact, she is taking huge risks, sheltering not only him but her torture-damaged brother as well. She also defies convention by allowing a strange man into her house and letting him see her hair.

Atiq Rahimi fled Afghanistan for France in 1984, where he has become a film-maker and novelist. The brevity of this work, which he is adapting for the screen, and the intensity of its imagery, make reading it almost like watching a film already.

The title echoes a Dari phrase meaning "labyrinth", an allusion sustained by the frequent references to the pattern of Afghan carpets, and perhaps also to Kafka's nightmare of unspecified accusation. Another pattern concerns pissing - pissing on grandfather's traditionalism, pissing in the grounds of the Communist Party, in the grounds of a mosque, pissing on a soldier. Although this beautiful piece of writing is far too subtle to be a polemic, we know where Rahimi stands.