(4.5 stars) Earth and Ashes packs more feeling and more power into its few pages than most other books do in hundreds of pages, and few, if any, readers will emerge from it unscathed. Author Atiq Rahimi has recreated the Afghanistan he remembers when it was occupied by the Russians (1979 - 1989). He was seventeen at the time, and life has not improved much for the populace since then. Rahimi's bleak picture of the farming village of Abqul includes the occupiers' casual murder of individuals, the decimation of families, the annihilation of villages, and ultimately the obliteration of whole cultures going back to ancient times. Without preamble or any lengthy setting of the scene, the author introduces a main character who is faced with a family crisis from which he may never recover, then tells that story in plain, direct, and straightforward language which gains impact from its very simplicity.
Dastaguir, accompanied by his small grandson, is walking toward the coal mines of Karkar. The Russians "didn't spare a single life...The village was reduced to dust." All his family members are dead. Though little Yassin has escaped the fires, he is now totally and suddenly deaf, and does not understand why jujube stones which used to click against each when he played with them, are now silent, why Dastaguir will not answer him when he speaks to him, and why the world is suddenly so quiet. Dastaguir and Yassin are looking for Dastaguir's surviving son Murad, Yassin's father, who fled the village to work in the mines four years ago. Dastaguir needs Murad to reconnect with his son, especially now that Yassin is so desperately in need of help.
Talking to himself constantly through the miles, he takes a distanced view of himself, referring always to himself as "you." He imagines meeting with Murad and has nightmares which combine ancient stories with the events of his village. And when a shopkeeper tries to be friendly, Dastaguir has to remind himself that "You wanted to talk to anyone about anything. Now, here is someone who'll listen to what lies in your heart, whose look alone is a comfort. Say something!" Throughout the novella, the author calls to mind the Persian epic The Book of Kings by Ferdusi, which "interweaves Persian myths, legends, and historical events to tell the history of Iran and its neighbors from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest in the seventh century." Three characters in that book loosely parallel characters and actions in this novella.
For a novel in which the "actions" are mostly "reactions to" past events, the author manages to inspire powerful emotional moments. The reader cares for Dastaguir because he reacts with universal human feelings-he gets annoyed at Yassin, and he agonizes over what and how much to tell Murad. With these characters and Yassin inspiring sympathy, the reader is impacted even more fully by the bleakness of the ending-and the continuing hopelessness which we know has continued among the populace during the present war in Afghanistan. Mary Whipple
The Patience Stone