Review – The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, Polly Mclean, and Khaled Hosseini
Title: The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, Polly Mclean, and Khaled Hosseini
Translated from the French by Polly McLean
Other Press, January 2010. 160 pages.
This is a beautiful small book. It sits on my table, compact. The cover is has a pretty script, and depicts a smooth, metal-dark stone, lying on a delicate mosaic-like background. The name itself sounds sweet. It is a pleasure to look at. Dear reader, as you begin this book, you will soon understand that there is nothing pretty here. There is such bitterness that it is sometimes hard to turn the pages without flinching. This is a beautiful, brave book. Don’t let its size fool you.
Sag-e Saboor is the Patience Stone, in ancient Persian folklore. It is a shoulder to cry on, a refuge. It is always there. It is hard and smooth, but it is also a sponge that soaks up the pressure. It can go on and on, absorbing grief. It is the title of a popular, romantic Iranian song of loneliness and longing. It is the essence, the core, of an Afghan’s woman life, and in a sense the key to her survival.
As Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) notes in his short introduction to this book, Afghan women have been deprived of their basic human rights since long before the Taliban era. The cold, hard centre of their lives has been largely service to a man, or men. And so, this story begins – a woman serving a man. Her husband lies on the floor, paralysed by a bullet lodged in the back of his brain. He has been lying there for close to three weeks, immobile and unspeaking, but breathing, open-eyed. The woman kneels beside him; she prays softly; she reads from an open Koran set on a velvet pillow. She strokes his face gently, whispers to him, administers eye drops to keep his open eyes moist, and checks the solution in his drip. Her two young daughters call her, and she leaves him from time to time to tend to their needs; then she immediately returns to her husband’s side, a picture of devotion.
Time passes. The woman’s life seems to hang on her husband’s breath; she breathes in time with him, counting the breaths and the days. The time of prayers comes and goes, and sounds from the street begin to intervene. Shots are fired, footsteps and occasional voices heard; the neighbour sings and prays, a woman alone, like her. But none of them interrupt the man’s breathing, and his paralysis continues.
The woman begins to talk – not to herself, but to the man whom she realizes is, finally and ironically, her own Patience Stone. She feels abandoned, angry at her husband’s fellow warriors, who ran away; now, she has only her husband, and a distant aunt, who takes in her children when the violence outside her window intensifies. She recounts childhood memories: herself and her sisters, “seven girls deprived of affection”; her betrothal at age 17 to a man she had never seen; and the loveless sex with her husband. Bitterness begins to seep into her thoughts and her words. She talks to her husband about his brothers, who spied on her lustfully; her own passions rise. She rages and curses; weeps and despairs; her voice, at first subdued, grows louder. She retells a long fable of incest, revenge and the possibility of forgiveness, related to her years earlier by her father-in-law. She spills out dirty little secrets.
The Patience Stone, silent, unmoving, takes it all in. this desperate, painfully intimate drama is played out in one room, and barely moves beyond it. The reader becomes acquainted with every tiny detail – the holes in the curtains, patterned sadly with flying birds. Escaping, perhaps. And yet, one wants to stay in this small, sad room. It’s not safe to walk out into the fear as yet unknown, the disturbing, often incoherent sounds of a city in conflict. Best to stay here.
And when people do, almost inevitably, intrude on the woman’s solitary ordeal; she uses them for her own purposes. They are introduced into the narrative to show you, dear reader, our heroine’s ability to act on her emotions, long repressed. At that point, you may find them a distraction, as she does. She simply wants to be alone with her man, her Sang-e Saboor.
A quick note here: I use the word “heroine” with some caution, as there is very little that is noble about her. She is an ordinary woman in the bleak and lonely landscape of war and religion, and her harsh language reflects that. Brutality is what she knows, and understands.
What happens to the Patience Stone in the end? The story goes that, when it fills up to overflowing with pain, when the pressure becomes too tight, it bursts, flying into a thousand pieces, like a stone set in a fiery desert.
That day, according to legend will be judgement day, and the day when man (and woman) will be set free from their suffering forever. And so they are.
“It struck me that this culture of vengeance was the reason why, time and again, Afghanistan descends into new forms of violence. This refusal to mourn, always to seek vengeance without concession, meant that even as the Soviets withdrew with one million dead behind them, we were fighting again.” (Atiq Rahimi on the post-Soviet era in Afghanistan).
Author Note: Atiq Rahimi was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1962, and grew up in a house full of literature and music. His mother was a teacher and his father a provincial governor under the monarchy of Zahir Shah. He studied at the Franco-Afghan Lycee. His monarchist father was imprisoned for three years in 1973, after the coup d’état. Rahimi joined him in exile in India for a few years. He returned to Afghanistan just after the Soviet invasion of 1979 and studied literature at the University of Kabul. He also worked as a film critic. When he was csalled up for military service he was offered exemption if he would submit to Soviet rule. Like his elder brother. Unwilling to do this, at age 22, he decided to flee from Afghanistan on foot – a three day walk over the mountains into Pakistan with a group of twenty others. In Pakistan he applied for political asylum in France. He studied audio-visual communications at the Sorbonne, producing several documentary films for French television. His first novel, Earth and Ashes, was written partly in response to the Taliban takeover of his homeland, and also to the murder of his brother. He directed a film of the book in 2004; it won a total of 25 wards, including at the Cannes Film Festival. His 2006 novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear was set in the era of Soviet rule and is also to be made into a film. The Patience Stone, written in French, won Le Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, in 2008. Rahimi returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002, and is working to set up a Writer’s House in Kabul. He also works closely with young Afghan film-makers and directors, as Senior Creative Advisor for the country’s largest media group, Moby Group (founded by four Afghan siblings, the Mohsenis; see mobygroup.com. “See it, jump on it, do it. Don’t expect it to be easy and don’t quit just because they say it can’t be done.”) Rahimi created and directed Afghanistan’s first soap opera, Secrets of This House, which has also won international awards. He lives in Paris and divides his time between France and Afghanistan.