"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Atiq Rahimi: A Genuine Winner

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am sceptical of literary prizes, which are more like a lottery than a reliable critical benchmark but I have just read Atiq Rahimi's Goncourt prize-winning novel, Syngué Sabour, (more about that title in a second) and I found it truly excellent.  Rahimi is an Afghan exile living in Paris and his three previous books were published in Persian.  This is his first in French and, like Kundera, he seems to write like a native.  Something approaching 'controversy' has been stirred up by the fact that he chose to write in French and by a certain smugness (see an editorial in Le Monde) about enlightened  France being the host for this chilling tale of the brutish misogyny of the Taliban).  There are some interesting critical responses on the publisher's website.  

The title refers to a Persian legend about the stone on which all human suffering and misery was projected and which, one day, would explode, scattering grief finally to the four winds.  The French sub-title is Pierre de patience or 'stone of suffering'. I see that most people seem to be translating this as 'stone of patience' which is literally what the French subtitle says but I wonder if the Latin root of 'patience', meaning to suffer is in there somewhere?  It is set in Kabul ("or elsewhere" the author suggests) in a single room where a woman watches the paralysed body of her brutal husband, probably a Taliban fighter, and, since he cannot speak, projects onto him all the pain of her life (much of which derives from him). He becomes her syngué sabour and the final éclat of her repository of grief is powerful and shocking.  It is written in a tantalising mix of Beckettian spareness and Arabian Nights fabulating richness and it is a stunning and shocking read.  One only has to compare it to another short, highly focussed novella, Chesil Beach, to appreciate its remarkable quality.

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