This slim book, winner of the Prix Goncourt, and translated from French by Polly McLean, is extraordinary on every level. It is poetic, lyrical, moving, crude, tragic, sometimes funny in an earthy way, and absolutely engrossing.
The plot is simple, the action confined to one room, the characters very few, and as a result there is hardly any dialogue, just a long, slowly expanding monologue by the unnamed woman.
“The Patience Stone” is almost Beckett-like in its sparing emptiness – and interestingly Samuel Beckett wrote in French, a foreign language, as did Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan living between Paris and Kabul.
The plot line is simple in the extreme.
A woman tends her injured husband, who has been shot in the neck. He is comatose but breathing. We never learn their names, nor those of their two little girls who make a happy, noisy but brief appearance in the story.
We are not even sure where the story takes place, right from the title page :
‘Somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’
As she tends her husband who lies there, eyes unseeing, not moving, not eating, just breathing regularly, the woman starts by speaking briefly to him, and the accompanying narrative is brief and staccato-like.
Gradually the woman talks more and more to her inert husband, a man she hardly knows, even after 10 years of what would appear to have been a loveless marriage. The only person in her husband’s family who seemed to care for her was her late father-in-law. Her brothers-in-law spy on her, ogle her, and abandon her, and their brother, when they most need help.
Then she rests her cheek tenderly on his chest. ‘How strange the soul is! I’ve never felt as close to you as I do right now. We’ve been married 10 years. 10 years! And it’s only these last two weeks that I’m finally sharing something with you.’ Her hand strokes the man’s hair. ‘I can touch you…you never let me touch you, never!’ She moves towards the man’s mouth. ‘I have never kissed you.’ She kisses him. ‘The first time I went to kiss you on the lips, you pushed me away. I wanted it to be like in those Indian films. Perhaps you were scared…’
The days follow a similar pattern – the woman cleans her inert husband, gives him a drip, puts eye drops into his unseeing eyes, and on the rare occasions when she leaves the room, we never follow her into the streets.
Occasionally, a gust of wind lifts the curtains. It plays with the migrating birds frozen on the yellow and blue skies studded with holes.
War rages on outside, in the street, in the courtyard of the shelled house next to her, but we never see it. We hear it. We hear the explosions, we feel the tremors, but for the woman, as every other person caught up in war, life – such as it is – has to go on.
So she sweeps the floor, and talks to her husband, and prays, and reads the Koran.
The brief intrusion of the reality of war into her life takes place when she is not there, having gone to sleep at an aunt’s house with her 2 little girls. Taliban fighters break into the room and ransack it, stealing whatever meagre possessions they have – the comatose man’s watch and wedding ring, and his Koran. It is a brief shocking moment, an ugly flip-side of the eruption of the man’s daughters into this room.
As the woman talks, she gradually confides in her husband. She talks of her fears about being married off to an unknown stranger, of her misery in her in-laws’ home. She talks of her childhood. She rails against the hypocrisy of war, and the cruelty of his family. She reproaches her husband for not loving her or caring for her, and she hates the futile war that has made him into what he now is.
‘My aunt is quite right when she says that those who don’t know how to make love, make war.’ She won’t let her self continue.
Her language and her stories get earthier, and cruder, and more graphic, and searingly truthful as the days unfold. She curses and swears and tells her unresponsive husband the fears and dreams and nightmares of her innermost soul :
‘She breaks off, and again storms furiously out of the room, for a breath of fresh air and to purge herself of her rage. ‘The fuckers!’ She yells in exasperation. ‘The bastards!’ And can immediately be heard weeping and begging: ‘What am I saying? Why am I saying all this? Help me, God! I can’t control myself. I don’t know what I’m saying…’
She walls herself up in silence.’
The book is beautifully written, in sparse but such moving prose, that we come to know every inch of that room in detail, and are every bit as fearful of the war and violence raging outside as the woman, as her deranged neighbour, as the stammering boy.
If ever the world needed an ode to the futility of war, to the brutal reality of its aftermath, to the tragedy that is the lot of Afghan women, and to the hypocrisy of blind adherence to religion, “The Patience Stone” is that ode.
A beautiful, moving book. Recommended.
Published by Vintage Books, the paperback costs £7.99
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