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Atiq Rahimi's "A Curse on Dostoevsky"

Raskolnikov in Kabul

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Remember Anna Russell’s Iphigenia in Brooklyn?  Probably not.  You need to be of a certain age to remember Russell’s madcap parodies of opera during the 50s and 60s. She toured the United States with her enormously successful one-woman show, poking the hell out of opera, especially the plot absurdities of the genre.  So what, you ask, is the connection between Russell and Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on DostoevskyNot comedy but absurdity.  Rahimi’s tale of a young murderer, named Rassoul, explores the fascinating cultural variants on Dostoevsky’s dark tale of murder and its affect on the murderer, especially when the incident is anything but tidy: no body, the status of women, Sharia law and, above all, the influence on the psyche.  It’s a daring move on Rahimi’s part, no easy feat to pull off.

So we begin, once again, with the murder of an old woman, brought down by an axe.  “The moment Rassoul lifts the axe to bring it down on the old woman’s head, the thought of Crime and Punishment flashes into his mind.” That’s the opening sentence, and we later learn that Rassoul was a student in Russia, during the Cold War, and it was then that he read Dostoevsky.  There’s the added irony that the Russians have long since given up their attempt to control Afghanistan, left in defeat, but Rassoul is one of the vestiges of their influence.  And the old woman, Nana Alia, she’s a pawnbroker and, as we will soon discover, someone who corrupts young women, luring them into prostitution.  Thus, there are social issues here in conflict with Islam, which will play a major part in the unfolding of Rahimi’s novel.

Like Raskolnikov, Rassoul is also driven by poverty, and the woman he loves, Sophia, has begun working for Nana Alia.  Rassoul is concerned about his family’s poverty as well as Sophia’s, but in the aftermath of the murder he absconds without taking any of the old woman’s money or jewelry.  Thus, he plans to return to the scene of the crime and extract what is valuable before the body is discovered, but he fails in that attempt because of the arrival of someone else.  So he departs again and waits, but surprisingly there are no reports of the woman being murdered, although she appears to have disappeared.  If there is no body, perhaps there can be no charges and, if there are no charges, the murder cannot be pinned on him.  However, with no body, no one is looking for him.

That doesn’t mean that there is no guilt or suffering, and here again there are major parallels with Dostoevsky’s story.  Rassoul loses his voice for no apparent reason other than guilt.  He writes in his notebook, “Today I killed Nana Alia,” adding “I killed her for you, Sophia.” He fears that is sister, Donia, is going to marry a man she doesn’t love in order that she can move her family out of poverty.  All of these details are set to the background of Kabul, with a new war (with the Americans), with gun shots and rockets going off all the time, and too many citizens attempting to escape reality by smoking hash. There’s even the question of suicide, as in Dostoevsky, but thrown into its cultural/historical context: “First, in order to commit suicide you have to believe in life, in the value of life.  Death has to be worthy of life.  Here, in this country, these days, life has no value at all, and therefore neither does suicide.”

Eventually, the tension, the suffering for Rassoul is unbearable.  He goes to the police and informs them, “I’ve come to hand myself over to the law.”  This is the response he receives: “Oh, sorry, there’s no one to receive you.”  Then, during a second attempt, the response from the police is “Really, you killed that madam to wipe a cockroach off the face of the earth,” implying that he murder is justified and the only victim is Rassoul himself.  “Oh, young man, I’ve seen crimes far more absurd than yours.  And I have also seen that killing a madam doesn’t eradicate evil from the world.  Especially these days…in this country killing is the most insignificant act there is.” The judge tells Rassoul that in Afghanistan, being in prison or outside makes little difference.  Furthermore, if Rassoul hadn’t killed Nana Alia, someone else would have.

There are other reversals in these responses to Rassoul’s confession of the murder, several of them becoming even more absurd.  One judge sees his crime as Communism; after all, he was a student in Russia.  Another implies that the murder of a woman in Afghanistan hardly matters; it is men who control the society and all human relationships, women being little more than disposable objects.  These harsh indictments of patriarchy have earned Rahimi the respect of his fellow intellectuals and the esteem for A Curse on Dostoevsky as his major work.  The translation by Polly McLean is a delight.

Atiq Rahimi: A Curse on Dostoevsky

Trans. by Polly McLean

Other Press, 250 pp., $14.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.