Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Syngué sabour

I could not recall having ever heard of Atiq Rahimi when a friend of mine in nearby Avignon, whom I visited the other day, told me about a book he had just read that he felt I shouldn't fail reading myself as well. The scanty details he provided about the story itself were unconvincing, but something in his voice that words cannot describe told me that I had no choice but buying the book. So, back at home, already past midnight, I ordered the book online and found it in the mail two days later. Another three days and I had read the book.

Atiq Rahimi is an Afghan novelist and filmmaker, exiled in Paris, France, whose previous work was written in Farsi. Singué sabour - Pierre de patience (not translated into English yet, as far as I know) is his first novel directly written in French. It landed him the prestigious Prix Goncourt, an honor rarely bestowed on other than French nationals.

Rahimi writes a powerful prose. Low impact short sentences that together create a cumulative effect that is different from, but not less potent than some of the famous opening lines known from the literature that resonate in the mind long after they have been read. In a short opening paragraph Rahimi leads his readers into a room that will be the setting for most of what happens as the story unfolds. Its various features are painted with broad strokes of the brush. The second paragraph focuses the readers’ attention on a man’s photo portrait in that same room, which is otherwise devoid of ornaments. In the third paragraph the camera pans to a man, lying on a mattress against a wall opposite the photograph. The same man as the one depicted in the portrait, but older now and exhausted. In the fourth paragraph we see the man being nursed by a woman, his wife. We gradually learn that the man is a fighter with some religious cause. Nothing out of the ordinary in a country like Afghanistan, where most people adhere to some religious cause and a fair proportion of the men translate such adherence into violent opposition to those who share different convictions. It so happens that he got wounded, can no longer move or speak, and is being kept alive thanks to the care of the woman.

In the course of the events the woman becomes convinced that the man listens to her and can understand her, despite the fact that he cannot speak or emit any signal that would show comprehension. But any such proof is not really what she is looking for. According to a Persian myth there exists a magic stone, the ‘patience stone’ (syngué sabour), that you need merely put in front of you to entrust to it all your misery and suffering. The stone will, like a sponge, absorb it all until, one day, it bursts into pieces. On that day you will be relieved. The man having become the woman’s singué sabour, the novel turns into a monologue that the reader overhears. The monologue reflects some of the specificity of the man-woman relationships as they are embedded in Afghan culture. However, that cultural context is only the setting that one may expect to be the natural choice of a writer who grew up in it. The reader does not have to be familiar with that particular culture to absorb and process the messages contained in the monologue.

The book is a small miracle of transcultural communication about the intertwined, connected, yet separate worlds of male and female human existence--full of complexity, pain, and occasional tenderness and beauty. There is much to be learned from imbibing this monologue, whether you are a man or a woman.

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