Review of “Earth and Ashes,” by Atiq Rahimi
Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes tells an enormous story by way of a very small one. The narrative, written in the second person, describes the journey of an old man, Dastaguir, with his grandson, Yassin. They are going to see the grandfather’s son, the grandson’s father, Murad, who works in a mine and wasn’t at home when his Afghan village was destroyed by the Russians and nearly everyone was killed. The first half of the book describes Dastaguir’s wait with Yassin at the roadside checkpoint for a truck to take them the final leg of their weeklong journey to the mine; the second half is about Dastaguir’s ride to and arrival at his destination.
Earth and Ashes‘s story is just eighty-one pages long, more the length of an epic poem than a novel. It shares with poetry a simultaneous richness and discipline of language – one feels the economy of expression in every sentence, but there is a lushness, too, in the barren context of the narrative. The most lyrical writing is inside quotation marks, the author giving his characters a more poignant eloquence than he claims for himself, an eloquence that the translation seems to sustain. A shopkeeper says to Dastaguir, “You know, father, sorrow can turn to water and spill from your eyes, or it can sharpen your tongue into a sword, or it can become a time bomb that, one day, will explode and destroy you.” Yassin has gone deaf from the sound of the bombs, but he attributes the quiet to the world rather than to himself, and he says, “The bomb was huge. It brought silence. The tanks took away people’s voices and left. They even took Grandfather’s voice away. Grandfather can’t talk anymore, he can’t scold me.”
The book is partly allegorical: The characters represent the problems of Afghanistan and stand in for a much larger ravaged population. It conveys with heartbreaking clarity the quality of a destroyed country and its courageous, nearly annihilated inhabitants. What is perhaps most terrifying of all is that this book is set during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; this is how bad things were before the mujahideen and the Taliban. We have become somewhat inured to the horror, so much of which we witnessed on news broadcasts, until we thought we knew it. Here it is once again made incomprehensible to us. Dastaguir and Murad and Yassin are the voices of this national despair, but the book is also the compelling narrative of individual afflictions. Your heart is in your throat as Dastaguir approaches the mine; you are deeply pained by the sadness and confusion with which he approaches a world broken beyond recognition; and you are filled with wonderment at the unbreachable fact of his survival. We get lost in his dreams and in his fears and most of all in his immediate quandary: Is it better to go and tell Murad what has happened, to bring such miserable news to someone who may now be innocent of it, or would it be better to turn around and go home, leaving Murad some further time to live without this knowledge, which cannot do anything but injure him? Then again, would it injure him less to hear of it from his old father than to hear the dread words from a stranger?
For all the sympathy the book generates, the characters remain in many ways bewildering to a Western reader. Here one is forced to accept a culture different not only on its surface but also in its very conception of human relations. These characters think things we would never think and act in ways we would never act. Earth and Ashes opens a way into Afghan life but keeps that life unfamiliar. This is one of its triumphs: It does not allow its readers the arrogance of identification.
There is no carping to be done with the details of a book such as this, because the text so manifestly serves noble purposes of consciousness and of conscience. Earth and Ashes is an ethical act that must be taken as a whole; it transcends the ordinary categories of literature. Rare is the book that warrants, for its moral illuminations, such pure esteem.