This novel (2002, London, by Yasmina Khadra, aka Mohammed Moulessehoul) was given to me a few weeks ago as a birthday present, and I began to read it as I was becoming ill with the flu. Days later, coming out of the effects of this particularly nasty bug, I realised I had been re-thinking the book and my reactions to it in a particularly appropriate frame of body and mind. I don’t mean to trivialise my responses, only to observe that sometimes one sees things differently when outside one’s normal time and space.
So I didn’t react well to the first hallucinogenic, nightmarish pages, which end “…our story is born, like the water lily that blooms in a stagnant swamp.” I hate the royal plural. For some reason, my frustration grew as “we” – or rather , I, the reader – am introduced to the two key male figures of the novel, plus one of the major supporting cast, and the description of a ritual stoning of a “prostitute”, in which Mohsen Ramat, the would-be diplomat, involuntarily finds himself participating…
I found myself frustrated by the way the author has presented his figures with equal intensity and attention, their stories contiguous in time and place, yet interwoven without apparent purpose. Patience, I told myself. So I skipped ahead several chapters, to make sense of what is happening. I found myself at a scene where a mullah delivers a particularly evil diatribe, through which Mohsen’s wife is forced to endure the heat of the midday sun, motionless in her burqa, and… Things are happening, I persuaded myself, so I returned to where I was in the story.
Curiously, I later realised I had jumped to the point in the story where all the manic, paranoid sociopathy of the novel begins to coalesce. The author’s skill, I discover, is to develop his speaking subjects’ identities through experiences with which the reader may recognise a normality which then fragments and dissolves and shocks by the nature of one’s reactions to events which seem inconsistently extreme in relation to their apparent import to the story. In another sense, his narrative style intensifies the reader’s experience by creating a claustrophobic effect, as if the narrative “camera” is always too close to the subject, and thus the too-subjective vantage point the author assumes in relation to the subject creates in the reader a state of constant recoil.
The author’s strategy – and thus his voice, notwithstanding this being obscured by his female nom-de-plume – slowly becomes clearer. Understanding that most readers will never have experienced anything like the dark days of the rule of the Taliban, he confronts his viewers with realities which are both alien in their extremity, but recognisable, and therefore made accessible, in their subjective normality. As Salman Rushdie said yesterday on the radio, it’s hard to write about real atrocity. So, in The Swallows of Kabul, beauty is the target, and the reader is left gasping as it is brutally expunged, and his representations of life – or survival – are depicted at its lowest ebb. And the first casuality in the war on beauty is laughter, which the author takes as the symbolic turning point to the descent into infinite sociopathy.
It is too simplistic to say this is a story written by an man through a woman’s identity about weak men and strong women. It is a story about individuals, two married men and women, who are crushed and brutalised at every turn, for whom violent dysfunctionality at every level turns to sacrifice and suicide. It is not a gendered story, even though the women are always subjected to the most brutally subservient and politically and socially disenfranchised roles, and good and evil are shown to be immanent in the characters as individuals rather than types.
It is a book about horrific times, and the author enables the reader to imagine one’s way into the lives and deaths of people like those enduring (or not) these days of war and conflict. It is a powerful and elegant book about horror. Read it.