the bookseller of kabul

October 22, 2008

When this book first came out, I have to admit that all the fuss and scandal put me off it. Åsne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who lived with a prominent Kabul bookseller and his family for three months, then wrote a book based on what she was told, heard and saw of his family and their lives. Obviously the (thinly disguised) bookseller was none too pleased at being portrayed as a cruel patriarch and subsequently both threatened legal action and applied for asylum in Sweden or Norway as he felt his life to be endangered by her revelations, before publishing his own version of story.

I’m not sure what triggered me to borrow this from the library (apart from my ongoing Afghan curiosity). Now all the brouhaha has died down, I could read the book in peace. And, I’m surprised to report that it was a very good, if simple read. Each of the family members gets a chapter or two in the book. The difficulties of being a woman, getting an education and simply getting on in life in post-Taliban Kabul are brought into sharp focus through Seierstad’s simple, little judgemental telling of the family’s dilemmas and travails. Her writing clearly shows her sympathies with both male and female members of the bookseller’s family, its straightforwardness sometimes tipping over into true sensitivity.

I’m not sure who was right or wrong in the conflict between the bare-all author and host, though a clash of cultures is certainly at the heart of the matter. What I did find disturbing was that Seierstad removed herself completely from the narrative in the telling of the story, despite the fact that she was clearly present at many of the events described. Overall, the book that resulted was worth my time, if not a permanent space on my bookshelf.

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