Author: Atiq Rahimi
Original title: Syngué Sabour
Original language: French
Translation from French by Polly McLean
Rating: 4 out of 5
“A fly sneaks into the heavy hush of the room. Lands on the man’s forehead. Hesitant. Uncertain. Wanders over his wrinkles, licks his skin. No taste. Definitely no taste.
The fly makes its way down into the corner of his eye. Still hesitant. Still uncertain. It tastes the white of the eye, then moves off. It isn’t chased away. It resumes its journey, getting lost in the beard, climbing the nose. Takes flight. Explores the body. Returns. Settles once more on the face. Clambers onto the tube stuffed into the half-open mouth. Licks it, moves right along it to the edge of the lips. No spit. No taste. The fly continues, enters the mouth. And is engulfed.”
I’m not sure whether I should look for any symbol into that, but a couple of years ago, when I moved from my homeland to my adoptive country, I was starting my journey with an Afghan writer, Khaled Hosseini and “The Kite Runner”. Now I’m embarking on this new adventure with another Afghan writer, Atiq Rahimi and “The Patience Stone”.
Atiq Rahimi is both a writer and a filmmaker. He was born in Afghanistan, but fled to Pakistan and later to France during the Soviet invasion. Since then he has been primarily residing in France. Besides writing, he produced a couple of documentaries for the French television, as well as several commercials. He also created Afghanistan’s first soap opera. Rahimi speaks French, his native language being Dari, a dialect of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He used French for this novel rather than Dari, and that made it easier for him – later, the author admitted that a kind of involuntary self-censorship and an unconscious shame that dwells in Afghan society prevented him from expressing himself in his maternal language.
“The Patience Stone” tells the story of a nameless Afghan woman who takes care of her comatose husband. When the novel begins she has been sitting there, beside her man, for sixteen days without any other sign of life other than his breath.
The entire story unfolds in a single room, in a movie-like narrative style. Although the man is severely injured and cannot speak or move, being supposedly unconscious, the entire book is written from his perspective, what he would see and hear if he were conscious. We hear sounds, including the sound of war, whispers, footsteps from outside of the room. But none of them interrupt the man’s breathing, which serves as a unit of measurement for time.
The woman begins to talk and the man becomes her Sang-e Saboor. In Persian folklore, Sang-e Saboor is the name of a magical black stone, a patience stone, which absorbs the grief of those who confide in it.
As the story progresses, she’s opening up her deepest desires, pains, and secrets to him, things that she couldn’t have shared with him if he would have been awake. She shares childhood memories, tells him how she and her sisters were deprived of affection. She remembers how they’ve come to be married, how she was engaged at age seventeen to a man she had never seen and then married in absentia. She talks about their loveless sex life.
The Patience Stone, silent, takes it all in.
Through her monologue, Rahimi offers an insight into Afghan women’s lives. She speaks of sexual desire, of obedience, war and honor in a conservative society. Rahimi’s Afghan woman is not an asexual, maternal, saintly figure, but an ordinary woman, filled with emotions and desires and unable to express herself and to be understood.
What happens to the Patience Stone in the end? It is believed that the day it explodes, after having received too much hardship and pain, will be the Judgement Day, and the day when man and woman will be set free from their suffering forever.
The book’s ending mirrors this myth quite well.
More I think about it, this small book was the perfect book to start my literary journey with.