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Book: The bookseller of Kabul
Friday, 05 October 2007 at 04:49 pm

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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.

Whereaboooots: Kabul
Moooood: okayokay
Tuuuuune: Joan Baez: Farewell Angelina
Discussion: 2 contributions | Contribute something

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angeyja: aliera
Date:October 6th, 2007 11:50 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry
You've just reminded me of a book I picked up in an Amtrak shop last year on the way to getting on the train, The Story of Chicago May by Nuala O'Faolain. It seemed to me a necessary book, not always easy to read; I put it away at one point, and then sighed at myself, and pulled it back out. Woke up five hours later as the train pulled into my destination.

There you have a writer journalist teacher who I think made her name writing memoirs. (Apologies because this was a while ago and am going from memory.) I liked that she noted upfront her presence in the book. And also the degree to which the book was speculation, and about her own journey through exploring Mae's story.

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mummimamma: Nøkken (Norwegian beneath the surface)
Date:October 19th, 2007 08:22 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 09:22 pm (mummimamma's time)
When this book was published it was throughly hyped in the Norwegian media. One of my friends read it and gave it such a blistering critique that I couldn't help reading it.

I have several problems with the book, first and foremost it is the genre; If she'd written it as a fictional story I would probably not have had as many problems with it, because I do not think her writing is particularly bad. And I really don't think the message would have weakened by writing it as fiction, and when you consider books like "The Kite Runner" even less.

But she does not. She writes it as The Truth about the family Khan Sultan and Afghanistan in general. Although she doesn't speak any of Afghani languages, and the only person in the family who speak English to any extent is the bookseller himself. Still she poses to have full insight in what happens in the heads of the family members. Furthermore she totally writes herself out of the story, even though she is present, at several instances she writes about things that happen were she is not present (like the the boys' car trip, and I can't remember which of the girls ruminations "alone in the kitchen"). It's written as a mix of fiction, journalism anthopological study, and fails at all genres.

About nine months after the publication some people started to question her book and methods, and then the Bookseller himself came and was totally raging because he wanted his part of the money (and also he didn't like the way she had presented him). It still goes on...
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