Atiq Rahimi: Earth and Ashes – Chakestar o Chak (2000)

Novel, short story, fable? – who cares. Here is a text with a sadness that tears at your heart, a visual beauty shot through with the horror of war, where every tear shed, every move made, every word counts.

Set during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan Earth and Ashes tells the story of an old man who has survived the bombing of his village. All the other members of the family are dead with the exception of Yassin, his little grandson and Murad, Yassin’s father, who works at the coal mines.

The old man has undertaken the exhausting journey to go and tell his son about the death of all of their loved ones  and that the little boy has lost his hearing in the bombing.

At the beginning of the slim novel the old man is sitting on the road with his grandson. It’s hot and dusty. They are hungry and thirsty and waiting for a truck to get a ride to the mines. These are dreadful moments in which the old man is torn by memories and fears. The memory of the bombing and the fear of the reaction of his son. How much should he tell him? Should he tell him how he saw his wife die?

With your back to the autumn sun, you are squatting against the iron railings of the bridge that links the two banks of the dry riverbed north of Pul-i-Khumri. The road connecting Northern Afghanistan to Kabul passes over this very bridge. If you turn left on the far side of the bridge, on to the dirt track that winds between the scrub-covered hills, you arrive at the Karkar coal mine.

This is the first book of Rahimi, an Afghani writer, that I have read but it will not be the last. This is beautiful prose, a second person narrative which is very appealing and something you don’t find very often in Western literature.

An army truck, a red star on its doors, passes the bridge. It disturbs the stony sleep of the dry earth. The dust rises. It engulfs the bridge thensettles. Silently it covers everything, dusting the apples, your turban, your eyelids. You put your hand over Yassin’s apple to shield it.

The dryness and harsh beauty of this country is rendered very well and what we read about the interactions with other men the grandfather meets, before arriving at the mines, is touching. The old man, as well as Mirsa Qadir, a shop owner, are moving characters. Qadir is a reader and a writer who had to flee Kabul and found refuge in this forlorn backcountry. In Kabul he used to assemble people and told them stories all night long.

One of the biggest achievements however is that with a few sentences and sparse but eloquent prose, Rahimi tells us a lot about his country. The old man learns that his son is found to be very promising when his superior tells him, that his son, although a grown up man, will be sent to school and learn to read and write. Allusions like these and the portrait of the storyteller Qadir show us a world in which literacy isn’t the norm.

Atiq Rahimi’s book is one of the most important discoveries of my reading this year. Not only is it well-written, it brought back memories of a trip to Morocco and the amazing encounters with kindness I had in that country. But far beyond reminding me of personal experiences it is also a plea to consider what horrors war means for civilians, what tragedies bombs trigger.

Earth and Ashes is a heartbreaking story of a war-torn country that reads as if we were looking into the soul of a man broken by tragedy.

The Patience Stone is the next of Rahimi’s novels I am planning on reading. Have you read any of his books or any other Afghan writers?

30 thoughts on “Atiq Rahimi: Earth and Ashes – Chakestar o Chak (2000)

  1. This sounds like an amazing and beautifully written novel. The passages you included in your review describe the surrounding are so well I can picture it. This is such a touching story. The old man must have so many conflicting feels, what a courageous individual.
    Thank you for brinmgin this book to my attention. This author sounds like one I don’t want to miss reading. I’ve added him to my last and plan to look up his books. This is a fantastic review :o)

    • Thanks Amy, I really hope you will like it. The old man is an incredible character, so touching. I’m looking forward to his other books. I think “The Patience Stone” which focuses on the way women are treated in Afghani society is quite hard to read.

  2. I read The Patience Stone last year and it ranked as one of the worst books I’d read all year. The book was badly written and badly presented (also kind of badly translated, but I tend not to blame the translator… doesn’t seem particularly fair…). I didn’t like the narrator, I didn’t like the focus of the story and I didn’t like how it thought it was so much more meaningful than it was.

    But pretty much everyone else who read the book liked it very much, so it must just be my own personal issue… I figure if you like Rahimi’s style, you’ll probably like The Patience Stone even if I didn’t.

    • I have The Patience Stone here and started to read the beginning and found it very different from this one. Earth and Ahses has been written in Rahimi’s native language Dari (Afghani version of Farsi I reckon) while The Patience Stone was written in French…. This could very well be a reason. And I agree with you, no matter how good the translator, if his translation is based on a badly written original he cannot save it unless he totally disregards his basic text. It’s a dilemma I have been facing before. What do you do, when you have to translate a badly written original? Staying true to it or rewrite it while translating…?

      • In my personal experience as a translator (mainly of technical texts and the occasional personal account), it can often be more accurate to correct the original mistakes and awkwardness (a rewrite, in essence) but only if the original intent is obvious. I figure it’s much more complicated in regards to translated literature, but I think that sometimes it’s better to improve the technical aspects of the writing if it makes the overall reading experience better but does not interfere with the intent of the original. I’m certain many literary translators and literary purists will tell me how wrong my assessment is but… that’s my own opinion and even though it’s not always accurate, I’m sticking with it.

        • I agree with you regarding technical texts. When I started translating, right after uni I made a huge mistake and translated a badly written text as is… I never did that anymore. Nowadays I edit the original, send it back and only then translate it. But I think there is a difference when it comes to literature. I just read a novel by Josipovici and the poor choice of words, the reptitoion of words made me shrink… How would one translate that? The writer in me would shy away from ugly sounding words and repetition but the translator would want to stick to the original.

  3. Wow. This one sounds great. During my history studies in grad school I studied the history of everyday life. My concentration was on WWII. Obviously I had to study the war and the main power players to understand the war, but I delved more into how the ordinary people lived and hopefully survived. I think when people study war, many of them forget that civilians had to live through horrible conditions. I love finding stories like this to remind us that war isn’t just glory about battles.

  4. That first blurb is pretty amazing–one that any author would love to receive.
    The only Afghan author I’ve read is Khaled Hosseini. His Kite Runner was unforgettable, but I didn’t have the heart to see the movie. The book was disturbing enough.

    I think that as a translator, you’d be bound to translate the words as they’re written, no matter how poorly. The editor should have fixed the flaws before the book reached the translator.

    • I read the German translation there were no flaws (the quotes are from amazon) but I checked meanwhile. I think it really is a matter of taste. 50% of the German and English critics think his style is highly accomplished another 50% think it isn’t. I think it has something to do with whether you are open to non-Western storytelling or not. But I haven’t read the second book. The critics uttered the same though.
      I agree about the work of the editor.

  5. I haven’t heard of this book or this author, but you describe the narrative beautifully. It sounds very sad and poignant. I am not generally a fan of second person narration, but I guess if the writing is powerful enough, it transcends small irritations with form. I’ll look out for it.

    • I like second person narration a lot but it seems it isn’t to everyone’s liking. I’m curious to see how the next one will be. In any case there is a lot to like even if you have a problem with the point of view. i started a Korean novel and it has also a part in second person.

  6. Wonderful review…I want to read this too. I like this sad thought provoking story. Reading your review reminds me of The Kite Runner.
    Talking about Afganistan always makes me sad

    • Thanks, Novia, I hope you can find it. It is very short but so touching. I realized after reading how rich it really is. These people are abused by everyone. The Russians, the Taliban, now the Americans and Germans and whoever. And still there is so much kindness in theses simple people. Such a tragedy. I haven’t read the Kite Runner yet.

      • Agree…Those people suffer so much.
        The Kite Runner is very interesting, although somewhere in the middle is a bit boring (when the main character is in US), but overall it’s a great book. << my review of it if you are interested, but there are so many typo and grammar mistake…it was written in 2008 😉

        • Thanks, I’ll read it.
          I got the book here, I’m still interested in reading it but during a certain time there was just too much talk about it and that put me off.

  7. I’m pretty sure this was made into a movie–or at least there is a movie out there with this title. My library has a very large Afghan special collection of books (we had a parallel studies program at one time) and as I do a lot of the ordering (not the selecting of materials just order what I’m asked to order) I get to see a lot of the books. I’ve not yet read anything by an Afghan author, but there are some very interesting looking books out there.

    • I’ll have to see whether I can find the movie, thanks.
      I’m sure your lbrarary is unusual in this.
      I hope you will tell us about those books, I’m very interested.

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