Review: A Curse on Dostoevsky

Posted 21 January, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

A Curse on Dostoevsky
By: Atiq Rahimi
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of Other Press via NetGalley

Reading Dostoevsky in Afghanistan becomes “crime without punishment”

Rassoul remembers reading Crime and Punishment as a student of Russian literature in Leningrad, so when, with axe in hand, he kills the wealthy old lady who prostitutes his beloved Sophia, he thinks twice before taking her money or killing the woman whose voice he hears from another room. He wishes only to expiate his crime and be rightfully punished. Out of principle, he gives himself up to the police. But his country, after years of civil war, has fallen into chaos. In Kabul there is only violence, absurdity, and deafness, and Rassoul’s desperate attempt to be heard turns into a farce.

This is a novel that not only flirts with literature but also ponders the roles of sin, guilt, and redemption in the Muslim world. At once a nostalgic ode to the magic of Persian tales and a satire on the dire reality of now, A Curse on Dostoevsky also portrays the resilience and wit of Afghani women, an aspect of his culture that Rahimi never forgets.

Having studied Russian history and culture, the title of this novel naturally drew my attention. My curiosity was further piqued when I read that this novel was set in Afghanistan; I thought this would make for a rather intriguing read. I was approved of an ARC of this title from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This title will be availabe on 4 March 2014. The following may contain some spoilers!

To be honest I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I had just read. It’s a very curious novel, sort of straddling between waking and dreaming. Indeed it does tackle those sorts of opposites and contentions: the internal versus the external, philosophy and reality. The novel is very internal and reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s infamous Crime and Punishment; the main character, Rassoul, from the very first page finds himself walking in Raskolnikov’s (notice that their names are similar) footsteps, undergoing a similar internal debate and torment. But how much of it is real? Towards the end of the novel the reliability of Rassoul’s experiences and narrative comes into question; whether the accusations from the police et al. are grounded or not is debatable (everything else they said in the rest of the novel is; for example, Rassoul tries to admit his crime but they charge him for something completely different).

The internal struggles that Rassoul undergoes was probably my favourite aspect of the novel. It’s a bleak outlook, to be sure: over the course of the novel Rassoul finds himself falling into an abyss and the things he’s held on to–his fiancee, his family, his learnedness–fades away the further the reader delves into the novel. It’s sad because Rassoul had potential, he had the education and he had a good family but the circumstances of his life and the state of the country he lives in contributed to the path his character had taken. But his struggle to find some sense in the world he lives in remains quite poignant: at first he wants to leave it, then he wants to stay in it even though he feels like the world had abandoned him. It’s a weird push-and-pull but it’s compelling enough that it’s not frustrating to read through.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Crime and Punishment but I thought the way that the author utilised the basis of the Russian novel was effective in this novel. I wish events of this novel were a little clearer but the overall murkiness of Rassoul’s thoughts adds to the overall atmosphere of the novel. The ending was curious–it questions the whole experience, really, as I mentioned earlier–but the novel as a whole is an interesting exercise of the convoluted ideas that the self works through and the reconciliation of ideas (i.e. the inner roles of sin/guilt/redemption in a society that has broken down yet adheres to a strict moral code), if such a thing is possible. I need to ponder on this book a bit further but these are my initial impressions of A Curse on Dostoevsky.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Learn more about the author on Wikipedia || Order this book from the Book Depository

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