The Patience Stone, By Atiq Rahimi trans Polly McLean

Reviewed,Alev Adil
Friday 26 February 2010 01:00
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in