Author: Atiq Rahimi
Rating: 3 stars
This book was received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Great literature transcends culture to say something universal about the human condition. But how individuals relate to literature has a lot to do with their cultural experiences. A Curse on Dostoevsky transplants Crime & Punishment to Afghanistan after the Soviet war, and raises the question, what happens when you live in a society where atonement and justice for an individual crime is considered at best a luxury, at worst a waste of time? What happens when murder is considered less consequential than denial of faith?
A Curse on Dostoevsky begins in media res as desperate Rassoul murders an old pawnbroker/madam who is prostituting his fiance and bleeding him dry of money. Immediately, the Russian scholar thinks of Crime & Punishment, and flees without accomplishing his supposed purpose of robbing her. In the aftermath of his crime, Rassoul wanders aimlessly, spends most of his time smoking hash, and struggles to come to terms with his guilt. Eventually he attempts to turn himself in to be punished for the murder, only to find that that the corrupt, war-torn government is more concerned with crimes of ideology than the murder of an inconsequential woman. As the philosophy goes, if God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted; therefore, if everything is permitted, does it mean that God doesn’t exist? It is this supposed radicalism that Rassoul is to be punished for, not the crime he actually committed.
This is not a novel that will appeal to everyone. It is unquestionably a work of translation–translations vary widely, but to me they often feel stilted and somewhat awkward in their language. It is unapologetically philosophical and mystical. And it has one of the strangest narrative voices I’ve encountered in a long time–part universal narrator, part internal dialogue within Rassoul.
But it is a fascinating piece of intertextual literature. This is the first piece I’ve read by an Afghani writer (though it was originally written in French). It uses Russian literature as a lens through which to examine Afghani culture, which provides an interesting access point for Western readers probably more familiar with the former than the latter.