Author: Åsne Seierstad
Details: (c) Åsne Seierstad 2002; Pub Virago 2004; translated Ingrid Christophersen; ISBN 1-84408-047-1
Verdict: The bookseller of Kabul is an uneven piece of reportage.
Reasons for reading it: Everyone was making a big fuss about it when it came out, and the subject matter seemed interesting.
How it came into my hands: Brighton charity shops.
As a war correspondent, Seierstad can be expected to know what she's talking about, but I feel she hasn't successfully made the transition from journalist to novelist. The writing is clunky (this may of course be partly the translation), and the book is somewhat lacking in a clear structure. As a series of vignettes of middle-class life in Afghanistan immediately after the defeat of the Taliban, it's not bad, and there are some vivid scenes. There's a bit too much rather obvious sexism is bad! and war is bad too! and we don't like religious fundamentalism either guys! type of polemic, but not so much that it completely overwhelms the book.
On the whole it's a very necessary book, in that Seierstad has a unique insight into a way of life that most of us in the West would find hard to imagine. And it's a very good idea to present this kind of material in the form of a readable novel about individuals, because it's going to reach a much bigger audience and have a much bigger impact than any carefully researched sociological study. Since it's so important, it's rather a shame that the book is not better written. That's not to say it's awful, it's just not worth all the hype.
I think my biggest problem with it is how much the narrator intrudes as a character, and one I don't find very likeable. She dislikes Sultan to the extent that the book starts to feel vindictive, and doesn't seem to have any idea that he might be a product of a system or that his rigidity might be his way of dealing with what he suffered when he was imprisoned and mistreated for selling banned books. That attitude sits oddly with the context where Seierstad lived as a guest in Sultan's home for many months in order to be able to write the book. In general, she comes across as being quite disrespectful of Afghani culture; yes, some of it is horribly sexist, and the point of the book is to expose that, not to justify it, but even so. Still, at least it's a contrast to trendy moral relativism which excuses everything on the grounds that's it's culturally determined.