World crime fiction #1

The retirement project: to read one crime novel set in every country listed in The Times atlas of the world.

Afghanistan                                                                                                                              A Curse on Dostoevsy, by Atiq Rahimi.

The plot: The book opens with Rassoul, a former student of Russian Literature at Leningrad, murdering a woman by hitting her over the head with an axe. The similarity with the opening of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment strikes him, and he identifies with that novel’s anti-hero. Rassoul is Raskolnikov, transplanted. His search for the meaning of his crime draws him into a world where morality, guilt and Sharia law combine.

Where and When: Kabul, after the Russian invasion has been defeated, but before the mujahideen have taken full control of the capital.

The Detectives: there aren’t any. The country has been reduced to fratricidal conflict between the various mujahideen commandants. Rassoul’s search for meaning brings him into contact with several of these commandants, plus a Qhazi (judge) who passes fearful punishments based on his interpretation of Sharia law.

Sense of place: Rahimi’s Kabul is a hellish place, filled with “the sulphur of war, the smoke of terror, the embers of hatred.” Images of dust and smoke fill the book. There are darkly funny moments; for example, Rassoul discovers how impossible it is to track a woman through the streets when every woman is veiled and wearing an identical “sky-blue chador.” He spends a lot of time smoking hash in a saqi-khana (smoking den).

Worth reading? If you want a straightforward police procedural, you’d best look elsewhere. But if a debate about the nature of killing, and about vengeance and guilt in a society where there is no crime as serious as that of betrayal – of family, of tribe, of religion – is what you want, then this is the book for you.

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