Monday, February 16, 2009

The Swallows of Kabul--A Review

“In the middle of nowhere, a whirlwind spins like a sorceress flinging out her skirts in a macabre dance; yet not even the hysteria serves to blow the dust off the calcified palm trees thrust against the sky like beseeching arms…”

Start a book like that and you can be sure that I’ll stay up reading till midnight! The Swallows of Kabul started with these words, and I soon fell in love with the author’s writing style. There is something to his poetic descriptions which make even the most boring events look like something interesting. There is a rich narrative quality to Khadra’s books—s(he) is an amazing story teller who always leaves me in a haze after reading his books. (It’s interesting to note that Yasmina Khadra is actually a pseudonym. The author is actually a retired Algerian Army general who adopted this name to avoid being recognized.) The Swallows of Kabul does not exactly have the most gripping storyline on earth but an unexpected climax more than makes up for it. The lyrical quality is just amazing. Even though the book is translated from French, it does not seem to have lost its charm, and the story is transporting in every sense of the word.

What pleased me was that this book wasn’t just a solemn complaint about what is wrong with Kabul—it was surprisingly mellow for something which is set in the backdrop of war, terror and unrest. The book tells me that there is tenderness, a residue of hope, optimism and happiness in people even under oppresive conditions...but also tells me that this can be slowly gnawed away by time. People who live here are frustrated, but still find ways to smile. Although the book echoes the pain of being bound so completely to the rules forced upon by the Taliban, it also talks how hope can live on in some form or the other. True, the book is realistic in it’s portrayal of the state of affairs in Kabul. There is the stoning of people to death, men who roam the city with rifles, and duties which are forced upon innocent people. But the book also shows me that there is also an inner world in the hearts of men—a world which can be altered by the deadly influence of the Taliban. It makes me question as to how a person can retain love, affection and ethics when the entire world is falling apart. The theme of the book revolves around the lives of four central characters, all of whom are completely different from each other. It is the story of similar destinies controlling entirely different people. Although fate is cruel to the people of Kabul, they do live their lives unassumingly. The plot itself is something uncommon, but has a tinge of excitement that you will definitely enjoy. The Swallows of Kabul is not something you will simply read and forget. It has a tremendous moral impact, making you reconsider the way you look at Afghanistan. The skill of the author in making you see the world through the eyes of his characters is something which deserves appreciation. He can easily make you realize certain subtle cultural messages that you might have otherwise ignored. You will have thousands of questions and opinions after reading it. Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for those who are intending to read the book. I would definitely suggest it for anyone who wants to give their brains some serious exercise. The story is beautiful, especially for something taking place in a desolate, crumbling city. Khadra itself communicates this very well. "And yet it is also here, amid the hush of stony places and silence of graves, in this land of dry earth and arid hearts that our story is born, like the water lily that blooms in a stangant swamp."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel sums up Khadra’s book as follows:

“Brilliant…accomplished…[Khadra’s] portrait of the Afghan tragedy is unflinching, his lean prose and story telling skills unimpeachable…The bleak portrayal of life under the Taliban contained in this brief straightforward narrative musters the complexity and moral impact of a much bigger book.”

I guess you don’t need much more to grab this book from your nearest library!!