Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to screw a family over, Norwegian style

25. The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

The About:
Norwegian journalist Seierstad was accepted into an Afghan family to observe everyday life. The family knew that she was going to write a book about them, so she has protected the family with made-up names. The family's life centers around the father, Sultan, who is a bookseller in Kabul and a fervent defender of right to free speech. At the same time, his teenage bride, elder wife, and the rest of the family, really, lives under fear of him: are they able to go to school depends on what Sultan thinks; whether they are allowed to communicate with people with whom Sultan has broken ties with depends on him; and ultimately, who is allowed to continue living under his roof depends on him and his quickly shifting moods as well.

This nonfictional account written in a novel form depicts the life of all family members from the 3rd point of view. As Seierstad explains, all descriptions are based on what people told her about their encounters with other family members and their feelings toward politics and the law and thus she was able to tell their stories even when she was not present. Seierstad has completely removed herself from the story, and any reactions the family may have had of her.

First of all: Seierstad got sued by Rais, "Sultan", because it would have been obvious who he was even under anonymity. He was, after all, a famous bookseller in Kabul! And he got pissed off by Seierstad's portrail of him and his family members, who in the book seem to all more or less hate him. She was found guilty of defamation and had to pay damages to "Sultan's" wife.

I don't know. I wish Seierstad had either gone all the way nonfiction and included herself in the story and called it "The Bookseller of Kabul and I" or then just used her information to create a completely fictional account. I think that's why she got into trouble: in the introduction she says that she portrays everyone fair and square, just as they had presented themselves to her, but... It feels weird that she'd think that she'd be able to give a just account of this family's experiences just because people told her how they felt. She didn't think that they'd filter and exaggerate their opinions because she was a white woman who was not following cultural rules (she was the only woman in the household allowed to dine with men, or walk alone on the streets!) and she'd told them she would write a book about them? That that wouldn't affect how people would communicate with her? Seriously? Occasionally, the passages where Sultan--the patriarch--rants and raves to his friends about politics in a very candid manner I thought... Is this what Sultan told Seierstad happened when he talked about politics with his friend, or is this what really happened? Because he seems like a heck of a brave person to be so opinionated. (And of course his friend had stupid opinions. Isn't that how we tell stories that involve ourselves: we are in the right and others behave silly?)

The women of the family are different, because it sounds like they did not talk to Seierstad as much as Sultan did--most likely because they didn't speak English like the men of the family did, and this Seierstad tells us in the introduction to the story. In the sections about what the women think of their lives it really feels as if she's merely projecting her feelings onto them and she crafts this narrative of what these people must think when they live in such oppressive situations.

Combine these questionable passages with just random stylistic changes: Seierstad goes from very floral and metaphorical writing jarringly quickly into reporter mode, where she begins to list pure facts from the history of Afghanistan devoid of any emotion, before embarking again on reflecting on how disappointed Sultan's son is because he cannot leave the bookstore to do what he wants. This can happen within easily within a few paragraphs. It's just... bizarre. I really feel like the book would have been much better had she been in the journalist mode all throughout it, without trying her hand in creative writing. The two styles are just too different.

In addition, either her writing style is not that great or the translation was not that great. Occasionally I had to stop and think, "What on Earth does this sentence mean?" Or then you get things such as, "...there are many things one can think of when one needs someone to vent one's wrath on." Is the family member suddenly mimicking a sarcastic tone a la the British royal family, or what is this stuff? My guess: a passive sentence gone wrong in translation.

I don't know Norwegian, but it sounds like the sentence structure is often like in Finnish: you first say where something happens/is and then the subject of the sentence--the existential sentence. But in English, this sounds often odd, especially when it's repeatedly used. I mean things like (and now I'm making this up), "On the windowsill there was a bar of soap" and "under the chair there was a cat sitting."  From the book, from a randomly picked page: "On a concrete block of flats in Mikrorayon no. 4, big signs have been hung with the word 'Courses'." By the time the reader comes to the end of the sentence, the place where the word Courses appears has already been forgotten. What's wrong with writing something like "Big signs saying 'Courses' are hung on a concrete block of flats in Mikrorayon no. 4"? I probably would not have thought of this structure much had it not been used incredibly often.

With all that said, I still enjoyed reading through the story when I kept on reminding myself that this is a real Afghanistan family Seierstad is writing about, so I tried to take it as interesting nonfiction. I probably would have enjoyed it more had I not read that Hosseini book which was amazingly written. I could not help but compare this to it, because the subject matter ended up being fairly similar. The difference in execution was just like night and day.

"Sultan" has written his own book, called There once was a bookseller in Kabul where he tells his side of the story, but it has yet to be translated into English. This should be done asap! The story is pretty interesting, as "Sultan" is now seeking asylum in Scandinavia because his and his family's safety is threatened by Seierstad's book--something that definitely breaks all sorts of journalistic ethics.

1 comment:

  1. This book is fantastic..... I allways understood that women in this scociety led such a miserable existance, but I never realized how it also affects the males of this scociety..... . This book is a real eye openner for anyone that wants to catch a glimpes into what life must be like in another part of the world, few have had the oppertunity too see. It has allowed me to understand at some level why it is that (they) view us the way (they) do and how very diffrent our culture's are. It will haunt me for a long time.... Everyday is a good day because, I did not wake up in Kabul,Afghanistan.