Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich

Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl was one of the best books I have read for the Read The World challenge, and so I thought I would read this as well. It is, again, a compilation of verbatim transcripts; presumably somewhat edited, if only to remove the interviewer’s questions and comments, but with the rhythms and untidiness of normal speech. This time, it is people associated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: soldiers, nurses, bereaved mothers and widows (although no Afghan voices). The title comes from the zinc coffins that were used to deliver bodies back home.

Helicopter-tank operation in Afghanistan.  Courtesy of Soviet Military Power, 1984.   Photo No. 130, page 116.

The English edition was published in 1992, and the introduction stresses the comparison with the US experience in Vietnam; soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and being told it was all a mistake, and the impact on the country’s self-image. There are of course also many differences. The USSR kept an iron grip on the news coverage, at least initially; this book’s publication in 1990 is symptomatic of the loosening up of the glasnost/perestroika era. It’s depressing to think how Putin’s government might respond to a similar book about Ukraine or Chechnya.

The other obvious parallel, of course, is with our own recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There is never a shortage of wars to write about, after all. In the end, that made this a less remarkable book, for me, than the Chernobyl one; it is not quite as unique and weird. But it is still fascinating and insightful, and I recommend it. I would just suggest trying to read it in small doses; I found when I read too much in one go, the individuality of the voices started to blur a bit.

» The photo of a Soviet helicopter-tank operation is from the Department of Defense publication Soviet Military Power, 1984, via Wikipedia. It’s a public domain image because it was created by the US government.

A Poet and Bin-Laden by Hamid Ismailov

This book tells the true story of Belgi, an Uzbek poet who fled the brutal regime in Uzbekistan and ended up in an Islamic militant/terrorist/dissident organisation up in the mountains of Tajikistan, just at the end of the 90s: in other words, as part of the same broad cultural movement as the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, just before 9/11.

The value of the novel is that it provides a more intimate perspective on that movement. Not that Hamid Ismailov was part of it himself — it’s not an insider’s view — but he’s an Uzbek poet and novelist who fled the country and ended up working for the BBC World Service, writing about an Uzbek poet who fled the country and ended up fighting with Islamic militants. There’s a cultural empathy there which is quite different to reading a book written by, say, an American diplomat or academic.

It’s more nuanced, more human, messier. The militants are not a faceless mass, they are a group of individuals. The religious cause is the primary motivation for some; but others are mainly concerned with opposing a particular Uzbek regime, or with personal ambition. And those who got caught up by accident and know that they are likely to be shot if they try to leave.

Belgi is well suited to being the human face of islamism, because his poetry offers the most direct possible contradiction of the stereotype. Most of the chapters start with an extract of his poetry, and it is modern, elusive/allusive… it is not the poetry of zealotry or violence. For example, picking one essentially at random:

Has summer come?
In your life you’ll still write another
Twenty-five books in the little square
among the mass of stone, ugly memorials.
Some concrete piece, the existence of a memorial
left by the builders,
turns into the absurd
as though, yes, say as though, in as far as
even if the thought ends
the yearning to continue it
does not end.
Shall I go into the dining room
and soak my hardened
brains in tea
so as to pour into my thought?
Here no one needs you,
but this is just the width and the length
of the fact that you need no one.

The poetry is not contemporary with him being a militant, it’s a different phase of his life; but still, the two things seem strikingly at odds.

So there’s a lot which is interesting about the book. But I do have some issues, mainly to do with form rather than content. The publisher’s blurb refers to it as a ‘reality novel’ and says that ‘in this book Hamid Ismailov masterfully intertwines fiction with documentary’. I don’t have a principled objection to mixing fiction and non-fiction, but in practice I found it confusing: I just wanted to have some idea of what was definitely true, what might be true, and what, if anything, was pure invention. No doubt the people who tried to teach me literary theory at university would despair at my naivety, but there you go.

What I found particularly confusing was that the book is an odd mixture of what reads like fiction with documents reproduced verbatim: press releases, transcripts of radio interviews and so on. And I was reading it thinking, well, the ‘documentary’ stuff must be genuine because anyone inventing it as fiction would make it a bit livelier; but the ‘fictional’ bits include events where the author wasn’t present, told as though from direct experience.

I ended up trying to google Belgi to find out whether or not he even existed; and to add to my confusion, couldn’t initially find any trace of him (I did eventually, once I worked out what to search for).

It’s not until chapter 32, halfway through the book, that Ismailov writes:

I think the time has arrived for me to interrupt my story and put in at least a brief word of clarification. Everything that I have written so far is documentary, and not only in those sections where I cite documents or eyewitness accounts, but also – even more importantly – in the parts where I tell the story of Belgi-Yosir, or rather, where I reproduce reality as seen through his eyes.

This is the point at which I must say that I have not made anything up, and while I am open to the reproach that I have not seen it all with my own eyes, nonetheless I have made it a rule in every case to rely on the words of those who did see things for themselves. Many of these people will never admit what happened to them: for instance Alisher, or Umar, who told me himself how he and Belgi came to be in Hoit, now works in a foreign cultural delegation.

If that explanation had appeared in the first few chapters it would have saved me a lot of fretting.

In fact I personally would have liked a generally simpler narrative. Inevitably there are a lot of unfamiliar names to keep track of — people, places, organisations — but it seemed to be made harder than necessary by the way it kept shifting around; not only the stylistic shifts between the documentary, ‘fiction’, and Ismailov’s first-person accounts of his own experiences, but also it felt like it kept hopping around in time and place.

So in various ways I found the model of a ‘reality novel’ awkward; it felt like the two impulses were fighting each other a bit, and I would have preferred either one thing or the other: a novelistic narrative or straight non-fiction.

But it’s an interesting and valuable book, despite that.

[Just in the spirit of full disclosure: the publishers, Glagoslav, sent me a review copy because I previously wrote a review of Ismailov’s novel, The Railway. Which was a first. So thanks to them for that.]

Afghan Star

Just a quick mention for this documentary, which I’ve owned on DVD for ages but only just got round to watching. It follows season three of Afghan Star, an American Idol type show in Afghanistan. It’s a brilliant idea for a documentary, because the glitz and bombast of those talent shows seem like the very epitome of a certain kind of western consumer culture. And in many ways it seems like the very worst of our culture: vulgar, shallow, manipulative and at least partially fake.

But in a country where quite recently music and television were banned by the Taliban, where people were killed for owning a television, putting on a music talent show — one where women compete against men! — suddenly becomes a powerful thing to do. And its not often that light entertainment gets to take a heroic role, but actually in a country oppressed by dry, moralistic theocrats, I think it is heroic to assert the value of lightness, of entertainment. And it may be the newly democratic Afghanistan, but it’s still the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and there are still plenty of angry, bearded, conservative men in positions of power, and those Taliban are still out there, and they still have guns and bombs. These people are risking their lives to bring people joy.

And yet, despite all the enthusiastic comments from people about the new freedom the show represents, when one of the female contestants does a little bit of very tame dancing on stage while singing, nearly everyone is genuinely and visibly shocked. Not just the beardy imams, but the other young contestants. The whole thing is fascinating on all kinds of levels.

And I watched it directly after watching some of the current British incarnation, X Factor, and it was intriguing to see something with many of the clichés of those shows — the embarrassingly bad early auditions, the queues of people waiting to audition, the dramatic pauses as they announce the results — but put together by people who are inventing a TV industry from scratch and have almost no budget. Although if you visit the show’s website and see some of the more recent videos, the whole outfit now looks a lot more slick.

Things posted to Tumblr: Gandhara bodhisattvas

I’ve been enjoying posting stuff to A London Salmagundi, and I find the convention of posting pictures without commentary rather liberating, because I am a relentless tweaker of my own prose and constitutionally incapable of being brief. But sometimes I find myself wanting to explain why I think a particular image is so interesting or beautiful. So this is the first of what may be a series: ‘things I posted to Tumblr’.

These bodhisattvas are from the part of the world that US foreign policy types refer to as ‘AfPak’; the top one, the older of the two, is from Hadda, now on the Afghan side of the border; the other is from Peshawar in Pakistan. But when these were made, and for over a millennium, it was the location of the Gandhara kingdom.

I only know that because I just looked it up on Wikipedia. But what I did already know was that these are in a tradition called ‘Greco-Buddhist’. This is art from a place where two worlds meet. Alexander the Great conquered the area from the Persians in the 4th century BC; hundreds of years later, the Hellenistic influence was still powerful enough to result in works like these.

That top one, from 1st-3rd century AD, is particularly extraordinary and particularly beautiful, I think. The style is recognisably Greek; the hair, the sculpting of the features. But the face looks Indian, and he has the long ears of the bodhisattva.

The other, slighter later (3rd-5th century) is less remarkable, less strikingly classical; more what one expects a bodhisattva to look like. But it’s still a lovely thing.

Just the existence of Greco-Buddhist art was amazing to me, because Alexander the Great and Buddhism lived in completely different parts of my brain. It’s like reading one of those counter-factual novels — what would modern Britain have been like if the Nazis had won the war? —  except, you know, it’s actually real. There really was somewhere where Buddhist monasteries were decorated in the style of ancient Greek temples.

The fact that the resulting art is beautiful just makes it even better.

» The Hadda bodhisattva at the Musée Guimet; the Peshawar bodhisattva at the V&A.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner was really the obvious choice from Afghanistan for the Read The World challenge, since my mother had a copy already. I have to admit I was sceptical about it; the very fact it became so popular at a time when Afghanistan was in the news made me wonder whether its success was based more on topicality than merit. Also the UK edition has a very wishy-washy cover with a sepia-tinged photograph of a small boy on it, and while covers are often misleading, they do at least tell you something about what the publishers think is the market for the book.

And so I rather expected The Kite Runner to be a bit like the book I read for Iran, also written by a refugee who has lived for many years away their home country: nostalgic and rather insubstantial. In fact, it is much darker than I was expecting.

It tells the story of the narrator Amir’s childhood in Kabul, particularly focussing on his relationship with his father and his friendship with the servant boy Hassan; then his life with his father as a refugee in California in the 80s after the Soviet invasion, and a trip back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to do a favour for someone. Some of the darkness comes from the brutality of the past 30 years of Afghan history, but Amir’s personal story is one of betrayal and guilt even in his childhood in the relatively peaceful pre-Soviet days.

Generally I thought it was successful: the childhood stuff is gripping and moving; the portrayal of the refugee experience, and the contrast with their life in Afghanistan, is very effective; and the vision of an absolutely shattered Afghanistan under the Taliban is also pretty good. I found the book to be a genuine page-turner; I was reading until 2am a couple of times. Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s a literary masterpiece. But it is a well-written novel that tells a good story.

Hosseini isn’t afraid to pile on the emotive material, and most of the time he manages that without tipping over into corny or melodramatic, but towards the end of the book he did trigger my own personal cynic a couple of times. There’s a confrontation with a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan where the coincidences got a bit too Hollywood for me, and I never quite got pulled back into the book again in the same way after that. I also think he fluffed the last few pages.

So having been thoroughly gripped by the book initially, I was a bit disappointed at the end; even so I would recommend it.

» the photo of boys flying a kite in Kabul is AFG_20071109_169.jpg, posted to Flickr by AndyHiggins.

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