A Curse on Dostoevsky

Andrey Volkok's Dostoevsky
Andrey Volkok’s Dostoevsky

This review was published at the Guardian. As so often, in places it’s been edited so it makes little sense and becomes clumsy. (Not a Guardian-specific problem, but a general problem with subeditors. I’ve never worked out why writers are paid to write, then non-writers are paid to mess up the writer’s writing.) Anyway, the unedited version is below.

As its title suggests, Atiq Rahimi’s “A Curse on Dostoevsky” puts itself in conversation with the great Russian writer, specifically with “Crime and Punishment”. Instead of Saint Petersburg, the action unfolds in Kabul. In place of Raskolnivok, Rassoul (though in his solipsism and misanthropy he may bear more resemblance to Dostoevsky’s underground man); in place of Sonia, Rassoul’s fiancee Sophia, a character who never quite comes into focus; and in place of the detective Porfiry, a series of commanders and militiamen. The murderee is, like Dostoevsky’s, a pawnbroker, also a landlady and a madam. Rassoul doesn’t know why he kills her, but potential motives include saving Sophia from her clutches, theft, and justice.

The text justifies its relationship with Dostoevsky’s novel thus: “This book is best read in Afghanistan, a land previously steeped in mysticism, where people have lost their sense of responsibility.” The murder of the pawnbroker sparks an investigation of crime and punishment (and law and lawlessness, sacrifice and vengeance) in Afghan society. Dostoevsky claimed that if God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted. Yet in Afghanistan God exists not to prevent sins but to justify them. Sophia’s father poisoned the director of the National Archives with counterfeit alcohol, a punishment for selling documents to the Russians. “These days,” he says, “any idiot thinks he can take the law into his own hands, with no investigation and trial. As I did then.” (The setting seems to be the period after the Russians and before the Taliban, when Islamist warlords struggled for power.)

According to the novel’s logic, Rassoul’s motto – “I’d rather be a murderer than a traitor” – could just as well be Afghanistan’s: “You can kill, rape, steal… the important thing is not to betray. Not to betray Allah, your clan, your country, your friend.” Yet the pages brim with real or perceived traitors, those who desert their friends for ideology or material gain.

There are some lovely dark touches: an old man who five times pawned his gold teeth loses them in the chaos of a rocket attack, and a woman warns that child meat is being distributed to the public (chiming in with Rassoul’s dreams of dismemberment). There are shifts in time and narrative perspective, flashbacks, dreams and illusions. There’s the “poetry of hemp”, men who smoke scorpions when they run out of hash, who tell stories of “the Valley of Lost Words”. There’s even a symbolic donkey.

But the whole is insubstantial, never fully vindicating its relationship to Dostoevsky. Its hesitancies and uncertainties make it seem a minor work cringing in the great one’s shade. The reader sympathises with Commander Parwaiz’s exasperation when he pleads, “Stop thinking you are that Dostoevsky character, please.”

Rassoul eventually gives himself up, not after extended psychodrama – he subjects himself to no sustained course of self-examination nor moral or philosophical analysis – but rather randomly, fecklessly. In a reversal of Dostoevsky, and of Kafka too, he can’t convince the legal system (what remains of it) to punish him for the murder. Instead he is punished for possessing Russian books, which the country’s new lords assume must be Communist.

It’s a challenge to write about a bewildered protagonist without gratuitously bewildering the reader, a challenge which Rahimi does not overcome. The novel’s valorisation of bewilderment sometimes reaches towards Sufi fable – “…When you say that you don’t know anything, that’s the beginning of wisdom” – but never quite arrives. Rassoul’s fevered thoughts contain some flashes of poetry, some well-achieved, some verging on pretentiousness.

What we are left with is irony, or “chronic absurdity” – a phrase of Rassoul’s. We learn retrospectively of a Nietzschean motive for the crime (to be an “Ubermensch”), but, as usual, this is derivative of Dostoevsky and not properly worked through. A doctor tells Rassoul he must relive the trauma of the murder in order to heal, and Rassoul anyway is trying to relive “Crime and Punishment”. What he manages is not a repeat but a poor imitation. Perhaps this is the point, like the speechlessness which curses him for two thirds of the book (importantly, his name means ‘messenger’ or ‘prophet’): a Joycean comment on shrinking significance, the epic becoming prosaic, tragedy repeating as farce. And perhaps it’s a particularly valid point for a country which has suffered everything twice – at least two ideologies and two foreign occupations.

By the end the reader wonders if the murder was one of Rassoul’s delusions. Is he a Hamlet, subject to self-provoked madness, unable to effectively act? But the suspicion that the action’s catalyst may have merely been a dream only further undermines the story’s tension.

Readers looking for an interesting take on Dostoevskyare advised to read Coetzee’s masterful “The Master of Petersburg”. Those searching for good Afghan novels may wish to try Rahimi’s two earlier works, including the Goncourt-winning “The Patience Stone”.

2 thoughts on “A Curse on Dostoevsky”

  1. O.K., sorry if I’m showering with my comments here (this is the second in a role) – I must say that is not my habit and if I am doing it here it is because I really like most of the stuff posted on Pulse,… So,… I think perhaps a Nietzschean motive demands an even more Nietzschean question (and, of course, the core problem of Crime and Punishment): to be GUILTY? There is a lecture on that I found pretty good, given a couple of years ago by Bernard Reginster at Oxford philosophy dept.:


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