Described as ‘an ingenious recasting of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece’, in A Curse on Dostoevsky Afghan-French author Atiq Rahimi transports Crime and Punishment to the streets of Afghanistan. What could be just another knock off turns out to be an innovative hybrid: with its intellectual premise and philosophical approach this is very much a French novel, whereas a subtle blurring of truth, rumour and illusion suggest more Eastern storytelling traditions, and the narrative is interspersed with Pashto landay-style poetry episodes. I haven’t read anything quite like it.
It opens with the murder scene. Rassoul, the murderer, sent by his father to study Russian literature in Stalingrad, has returned with a head full of Dostoevsky and some uncomfortable morals which prevent him from earning a living. Rassoul’s Dostoevsky is a mystic; an interpretation frowned upon by his Russian teachers.
Rassoul’s plan is to murder a moneylender and madam to free his girlfriend Sophia from her clutches. He will steal her money and use it to provide for Sophia and her family, who have lost their father in a rocket explosion. Once he has killed the woman, however, he is overcome with horror and escapes without taking anything.
Like his inspiration Raskolnikov, Rassoul is unable to live with the act he has committed.
“The air is becoming more and more impossible to breathe. Rassoul coughs. A tickly, noiseless cough.
His throat is dry.
His voice makes no cry.
Not a drop of hope in his mouth, the river, or the sky.”
He falls into an abyss, unable to speak or care about anything, not even his fiancé, and spends most of the book in silence, provoking in turns bemusement, annoyance and incomprehension in those around him.
Upon regaining his voice the first thing Rassoul does is attempt to hand himself in, but in ‘this country where betrayal is worse than murder’, where allegiances are formed on the basis of a shared interpretation of a piece of literature, he has a hard time finding someone who will take him seriously as a criminal.
“Rassoul-djan, you read too much. That’s fine. But there’s one thing you should know: your fate is written in one book and one book only: the Lawh Mahfuz, the ‘Preserved Tablet’, written by … he points up at the ceiling, where a few flies are buzzing around.”
According to Sharia law his crime could even be justified; the judge, when Rassoul finally manages to meet him, is more concerned with allegations that he has tried to steal sacred pigeons from the mosque compound, and the possibility that his father was a communist.
There are many things being debated here: different definitions of right and wrong, different versions of the truth, the power of words (and silence), the options for making a moral stand when rule of law as we know it doesn’t exist and when all around you people are dying. But the debate is so subtle it’s almost opaque; I’m not convinced I’ve fully got my head round this book yet, but it’s made me question a few beliefs so that must be a good thing. The story ends with a glimmer of hope, but, like much of the rest, it is unclear whether the event actually happens or not.
Any Cop?: An original but challenging blend of French philosophising and Eastern storytelling. Definitely read it, but make sure you’re in the mood for thinking when you do so.