Friday 22 February 2008

145 Pages of Dream, Fear, and Confusion

I'm always looking for new writers (well, new to me) to expand my pool of awesome present and future reads, so I was excited to stumble across Atiq Rahimi's A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear when browsing in BMV one night last Fall.

The only other book about Afghanistan/book by someone from Afghanistan I've read is Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which was one seriously gigantic disappointment. I've never before read a book in which flat characters become even flatter as the book progresses. Usually, bad writers can maintain the level of mush they begin with without descending even further into their own mire of blah. But I digress.

If nothing else, A Thousand Nights of Dream and Fear should win some award for cool and compelling title (it comes from the Dari expression "a thousand rooms" which can also be translated as "labyrinth"). Unfortunately, in my humble but unashamed opinion, that's the only award this book should win.

Rahimi's novella tells the story of a university student named Farhad who wakes up in a stranger's house after having the life nearly beaten out of him by some pissed off soldiers (it's Kabul, 1979 - not good times). The book comprises flashbacks to the beatings, hallucinatory meditations on his present situation, and concerns about the future. Near the end of the book, he's smuggled out of the stranger's house and to be delivered to his father in Pakistan for his own safety. In the last 10 or so pages of the book, however, Farhad's story becomes confused with the story of Joseph from the Koran and....well, I don't have a clue what happened to Farhad in the end. Is the last page another flashback or has he been captured to be beaten to death again? Is there something more poetic and abstract going on? Is Farhad hallucinating from all the drugs he just smoked in the mosque?

The ending isn't the only thing about this book that I found less than satisfying, unfortunately. The writing/translating just wasn't interesting but in a book in which the focus is memory and internal dialogue, it really has to be interesting. I did like his hallucinations (?) about the dervish giving him some awesomely Rumi-esque advice, but I don't know what to make of the fact that it's not clear whether or not the dervish was real, especially when considered alongside the confusing conclusion worried over above.

I don't mind things not being made entirely clear - if I did mind, I'd never be able to enjoy either David Mitchell's or Haruki Murakami's works. It just bothers me when things are left unclear in either an uninteresting way or in a way that leaves too much hanging. I feel like either the translators blew it with A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear or Rahimi hadn't yet decided what he wanted to convey with this book when he submitted it to his publisher. I think this volume will soon be available on my Bookmooch page.

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