We are in an unnamed city in Afghanistan, trapped in a room with a jihadist soldier lying in a coma. Shot during a brawl, the man lies on the cusp of life and death, passive, mute, but seemingly indestructible. His wife, a beautiful woman in her late twenties, tends to him, fixes the drip that feeds him, moistens his eyes, bathes him.
She has been left to care for him and their two young daughters alone. A terrible story emerges as the woman begins to speak after a lifetime of silence and censorship. At first the woman prays for her husband to recover. Then she longs to leave him. As she finds her voice she needs him to be her comatose confessor, her patience stone.
The black snag-e-sabur of Persian mythology, a magical stone which absorbs all the confessions of the penitent until the Day of Judgment when it will explode, is a central, over-determined, metaphor in this novel.
Atiq Rahimi's prose is spare and elegant and sporadically mutates into shards of evocative poetry. Polly McLean's lean translation does justice to the original French. While the events the nameless woman speaks of are hyperbolic, the narration is not.
Yet despite the beauty of the writing, this slim novel is hard going. The confined setting, the woman's dramatic soliloquys and Rahimi's impassive narration make it read more like a play. War is going on offstage. In the distance, beyond the ragged fluttering yellow and blue curtains, neighbours are beheaded, the house looted. The world shrinks and becomes one squalid room.
We hear what the living corpse hears, the faraway shots and explosions; see the fly that falls into his mouth, the ants that carry away the remains of the fly, the spider that scuttles across his beard.
Time is measured in sounds, in the time it takes for the woman to say one of the 99 names of God 99 times. As she descends into madness, her confessions become increasingly lurid: her attraction to his father, how a pimp arranged for her to be "mated" with an anonymous man because her husband was infertile. She masturbates over her husband's body, rubs her menstrual blood in his beard, prostitutes herself to a teenage soldier in front of him.
There are rare, aphoristic flashes of wit, and traces of a very black humour. The jihadist is not dying heroically for the glory of God but because of a squalid fight after someone said "I spit in your mother's pussy".
The novel takes places in the terrain between allegory and melodrama. The woman is every woman and no woman at all. Although Rahimi creates a specific person, he never attempts to create much empathy. The woman pays a terrible price for self-revelation and the reader gains no more insight than might be gleaned from a garbled nightmare inspired by a late night-news item about the atrocities in Afghanistan.