We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Anne Seierstat's _The Bookseller of Kabul_ · 21 October 05

My dear Fanny,

Seierstat’s Bookseller of Kabul seems to have been forgotten. It’s a book that tells some important truths, truths which were ignored by most reviewers at its time of publication.

In many of these reviews "doubts" and "discomfort" the reviewer professes to have felt while reading the book were the dominanting theme. Seierstad names names and discloses what she saw after being invited in the bookseller’s family to live with them for a time. She did tell Sultan she intended to publish a book on his family: probably he didn’t imagine how she’d see him and them, but he did give her permission to write about them.

In fact, Seierstat presents a rounded portrait of Sultan himself. He’s a brave strong man who has spent his life trying to protect and disseminate the real history and best of Afghanistan culture. What she also does is show how his treatment of his family and particularly the women in it is utterly at odds with his self-consciously proclaimed modernism and humanism. He has risked all his wealth and his life repeatedly, repeatedly recreated his collection.

I recommend Seierstat for her frank portrait of life for the individual in the traditional Muslim family. Her book uncovers what happens to individuals in family groups in traditional communities. She shows not only what the use of people in this pragmatic way does to most of the women, but also to the men, both the man who hopes someday to be "the boss" and the men who don’t. Two women are the most tragic figures: one is a gifted teenage girl, Leila, condemned to spend her life in a house where she is the person who does all the garbage—picks it up, lives among it, eats it. She does try to escape more than once, but instilled in her are both a fear of others and she has a fastidiousness which makes the abrasiveness and disdain and suspicion she meets as a low status women distressing and distasteful to her. She also doesn’t have enough connections and contacts to get past the bribery patronage system which is part of this Muslim family world.

She fills out the down under parts of traditional worlds run by the power-hungry and their coerced and hired pests. We see how the motley ties may be used by family members to strangle the less aggressive and powerless by custom. If communism politicized every aspect of public life, family at the center of jobs and placements and education politicizes breathing.

Sultan’s son, though, is also shown to be created into a desperate man. In a way what we see is indicative of the structures and patterns in the culture: they seem calcuated to dampen, marginalize, indeed do the opposite of promoting kindness or tact. And the selfish way people use one another and the way sex is treated as ugly and sordid makes for continual nasty conversation. Sultan spends his life rescuing books, but he will not allow his son to develop his inner self so the son can enjoy them. The son can’t do anything and has no one to buy a present for but the people who have damaged him and who he daily exploits. The incidents
show this. The narrator is restrained: all she says is Sultan’s son is frustrated and repressed, angry. Like the others, there is no way he can make any contacts of depth outside his father and his father’s network. He has a cruel nasty tongue at the lowest in the family: Leila. Like Austen’s Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park), he preys on someone who is safe to prey on, takes it out on her because he too is at the master’s beck and call. Although he, like Leila, finds some opportunity in this new world to free himself and educated himself, he cannot do it. He fears reprisals too. He fears what will happen if he fails and has no one to turn to then to help him.

The harsh punishments are meted out to both women and men. Women are stoned or killed or beaten if they displease or disobey or have sex in ways unapproved of. The men go to prison where conditions are bad. (I’ve read that the percentage of torture in Bombay is the worst in the world.) The constant begging of someone to help someone else not get destroyed or hurt this way reinforces the continual demand for cringing in this environment. It’s a harsher version of what one reads was true in Europe until about the mid-19th century. It makes me remember how refreshing Anthony Trollope found it (in his North America and again Australia and New Zealand) not to find cringing or deference central to the new non-traditional societies developing in the US and Australia.

Seierstat has been particularly criticized for describing the obesely fat older woman who is now in a position of authority in the family, and need do no chores at all. She was quite right to emphasize this woman’s great weight and how others have to serve her with great discomfort. The whole way of life encourages someone to take revenge on others this way (humiliate them) and to do nothing as the top sign of power in the home for a woman. The woman’s cruelty to the powerless women in her household makes Mrs Norris look mild by comparison. As Mrs N says, after all, she asks Fanny to do nothing she’s not required to do and does do herself.

Seierstat also pictures and details the history of the recent destruction of Afghanistan, both from its own princes, and then the Soviet Union and now the US. The desperate conditions Sultan’s family (and all others) live in are partly the result of these incessant wars and destruction—and then the corruption afterwards which makes rebuilding so slow it’s hardly apparent anywhere at all. She apparently is a courageous reporter who has travelled with war groups, been near and around battles. People who report what’s happening in the Arab world today are continually in danger of murder. And they do get murdered.

Her portraits are without sentimentality. There is no pretense about the limits of the affection and support levels of the family group. When she presents them together she shows how bonding works and where it breaks down continually through the opposing forces of hierarchy and use of one another.

Perhaps the book is most important for a western reader because Seierstat’s way of telling her stories leaves room for analogies with some aspects of family life in the West—yesterday (19th century) and today. Primogeniture in Western society until recently; customs about women in the 19th century (in an essay on the fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala I’ve read the writer points out close analogies to the way the non-rich widow in the west was treated to the widow in India whom the family would be threatened by if they did not burn her); and the patronage system.

I take Samuel Johnson’s view that (in defense of truthful biography and autobiography) that "if we owe regard to the memory" of individuals [eighteenth century terminology comes in here) and those who are dead [can’t defend themselves], we owe more to knowledge, truth, and the increase of virtue. Virtue is a complicated word but it means stronger more humane as well as moral decent life. My defense would add Pope’s defense of satire which names people: it is taken so much more seriously.

Perhaps the reviewers identified with the powerful man and don’t want the networking & intimate patronage systems which makes them successful to be exposed. In the London Review of Books a few months ago there was an excellent article on recent French culture taking a dive downwards to dumbing down. Why? The author suggested the modern magazine, periodical, and media culture in France rewards social skills not strong literary or artistic intelligence. So too others. It’s not nice to tell.

She also uses fictional techniques. It’s important to defend her on principle here. Writers are rarely frank enough about the imaginative and subjective basis of all autobiography (rare exceptions include Richard Holmes in his wonderful Footsteps). Even the most austere of biography uses quotes and puts words in the subject’s mouth; autobiography is necessarily partly fictionalized (as Mary McCarthy, among others, shows). The use of "thoughts" in someone’s head just take this further, and I found nothing in the "thoughts" that could not come from an interview transposed.

The use of this technique is avoided or it’s disguised variouslyby biographers because it’s a convenient stick for those who don’t like what they read to use to say the bookis untrue and get others to dismiss it. One case in point I know well is the book which has been "dissed" by Janeites and scholarly Austenites as unscholarly is David Nokes’s JA. He was candid enough to discuss his technique. In reality his book contains more original scholarship and knowledge about his subject than his rival, Claire Tomalin’s JA. His is the better deeper book even though he doesn’t provide traditional notes. I’m not alone in recognizing the sounder scholarship and interest of his interpretation. Interestingly, Nokes’s book is in paperback and sold pretty well and is used by scholars for its documentary reprints and analysis—though it did not receive the popular praise nor sell as well as the more anondyne, restrained and traditional portrait of Austen provided by Tomalin.

Such techniques are effective and always necessary (if downplayed by various devices) and Seierstat’s book none of them were overdone or without adequate foundation.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. This book has been in my pile for ages. Thanks for prompting me to put it on the top.
    R J Keefe    Oct 21, 10:58am    #
  2. Dear RJ,

    She also has the ability to provide a "quick read." I read it in less than 3 nights (so that would be probably less than 6 hours).

    This is a journalistic skill. Like Ehrenpreis, she’s a journalist—a good one.

    Patrick Cockburn, brave man, can also be read swiftly—and yet provides much indepth information and analysis.

    Chava    Oct 21, 11:48pm    #

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