Afterthoughts: Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

In a Nutshell: Don’t let the small size of this novel put you off. Atiq Rahimi packs an awful lot of story into a small space, and he does so with much elegance and poise. As far from a ‘feel good’ novel as you’re likely to get, Earth and Ashes is perfect for those who love stories which explore the human condition to a profound depth.

*****

“Men have lost all sense of honour. Power has become their faith instead of faith being their power”

It’s only been a day or so since I posted my forethoughts on this novel, but I return already to let you know what I thought of it. To avoid repeating myself in terms of the plot for this novel and the background of the author, I invite you to visit that forethoughts post if you want further information on these things. Onwards then to my afterthoughts for Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes:

From the outset I have to say that there is very little in Earth and Ashes that is going to raise the spirits. It’s a very bleak novel that comes without warmth or comfort, yet I still recommend that you to read it. And I do so because I think Earth and Ashes stands as a great testament to how good a storyteller, Atiq Rahimi is. The novel may only amount to less than 70 pages in total (which essentially makes it a long short story I suppose), but Rahimi packs an awful lot into a tiny space, and he does so with much elegance and grace.

In the first instance Rahimi is wonderfully lyrical in the use of his prose in Earth and Ashes, and he shows a real interest in putting that skill to great effect in exploring the human condition, especially in relation to loss. I won’t deny that Rahimi is also using Earth and Ashes to send out a huge political message – not surprising given that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had such a huge impact on the writer during his teenage years – but he transmits this message in a more subtle way, choosing to keep the main focus of the novel on the main character Dastaguir, and the way in which that character is trying to come to terms with devastation and loss.

Because Earth and Ashes is so short in length it’s difficult for me to say too much about Dastaguir’s situation without giving away the story. But I will say that his situation is hopeless (so hopeless that he even renounces his faith at one point), and it’s made all the worse due to the illusions and flashbacks which keep coming to the front of his mind all the time. As such one instantly feels sorry for the main character, but Rahimi instills the sense of hopelessness in the reader to an even greater depth, by presenting this entire novel in second-person perspective i.e. just as in portions of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, where the narrative uses the term ‘you’ as though the reader were in the role of the character. It may take a page or two to get used to how the story is being told, but when one does one seems to be instilled with a greater empathy for the main character and the dreadful situation that he finds himself in. It’s all very cleverly done.

I said at the start of these afterthoughts that Rahimi packs an awful lot into such a short novel. And one of the things he makes a point of doing in Earth and Ashes (and thank heavens he does because it’s a real triumph and a treat), is mixing in the contemporary with the traditional; with the traditional coming from the great Persian epic, Shahnama (Book of Kings). Rahimi makes a number of references to the Shahnama throughout – or rather to the primary events that occur in that epic – but it is at one point in the novel in particular – a point where a character is summing up how things have changed to the detriment of the Afghani people – that the references to the Shahnama become the most pertinent. And what a privilege it is to witness that moment – the moment when a writer pulls something out of from his heritage and applies it so that it becomes wholly relevant to his own time. It’s almost worth buying this book for this moment alone.

I just want to note a couple of other things I go. Firstly, that I consider Erdag Goknar’s translation of this work to be exemplary, and totally sympathetic of Rahimi’s wonderfully poetic prose. Secondly, I want to give praise for the quality of this US edition of Earth and Ashes. At first I thought $13.95 was a bit steep for a book so slim, but after working with the book over the past day or two I’m delighted at how well this edition has been put together. The quality and elegance if binding and design match up perfectly to the quality and elegance of the story.

And so I will leave these afterthoughts then, hoping that I have given you enough motivation to go and pick up this book. You already know that you’re not going to walk away from this one with a smile on your face and a skip in your step, but I hope that you will walk away having had your heart and soul touched by a very competent writer, and one who still holds a link to the storytellers of the great Persian literary past.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Other Press | August 2010 | $13.95 | HARDBACK | 96 PP | ISBN: 9781590513453

[UK] – Vintage | October 2003 | £5.99 | PAPERBACK | 64 PP | ISBN: 0099442124

:: What others have said about Earth and Ashes::

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books)

Comments

  1. Rob, have you read Rahimi’s The Patience Stone? It’s a very powerful story as well.
    I’ll need to check out this one too.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Earth and Ashes is my first Rahimi, Suzanne, but you can bet that ‘The Patience Stone’ is now on my wishlist.
      Many thanks
      Rob

  2. Rob, beautiful review and forethoughts. And thank you for linking/quoting me! 🙂

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      The pleasure is all mine Marie. Tat’s a pretty damn good review you wrote yorself.
      Warmest
      Rob

  3. Amy (Twitter: amckiereads)
    says:

    Hooray! 2 for 2 on books that I wanted before you spoke about them, and want even more after your forethoughts and afterthoughts! This sounds like a really great book and it is also moving up on the wish list.

  4. A new author and book for me. Thank you for the review. I will be keeping an eye out for this one.