The great thing about having a public library with an “International Authors” shelf in the new books section is you never know what you might find. A few weeks during a recent library visit I found two short novels, both set in South Asia. As part of my Muslim Asia Reading Challenge I decided to give them a try. After finishing them last weekend I’m glad I did. Not only did I find them well-written and well-translated, but because of the similarities between the two novels I thought they complimented each other rather well. Set in South Asia and written in the first person, they tell the story of two women and the challenges each must face as they relate to their respective husbands in addition to the larger world around them. And just to make things interesting, both women harbor dark and potentially damning secrets from their spouses.
Set in Bangladesh, Taslima Nasrin’s Revenge: A Fable is the story of Jhumur, a young university-educated women who after marrying her sweetheart Haroon must deal not only with his jealousy and mistrust but also the stifling demands of his traditional Bengali family. Covered head to toe in garments and unable to leave her home without a male escort, only a few months into their marriage she is forced to get an abortion because her new husband refuses to believe she is carrying his child. Feeling hurt and angry by his betrayal of trust, she eventually finds passionate romance in the arms of Afzal, a handsome and worldly artist living next door. Soon Jhumur is once again pregnant, but unlike last time, Haroon is not the father. It’s Afzal. With Haroon desiring nothing more than to father a son with his loyal and submissive Bengali wife, he quickly rejoices upon hearing the news of Jhumur’s pregnancy. However, keeping in mind the novel is named Revenge, you probably have a pretty good idea of where things end up going.
While Revenge wasn’t the best novel I’ve read this year, nevertheless I thought Nasrin spun an engaging tale of betrayal and revenge. I thought her novel provided me with a nice window into contemporary Bengali culture, (a culture I know virtually nothing about). Ironically, considering Nasrin is well-known as a staunch critic of Islam, she hardly even mentions religion in her novel. The reason or reasons for Haroon’s mistreatment of Jhumur seem rooted in traditional Bengali culture, in addition to Haroon’s own character flaws as opposed to any religious factors.
From Bangladesh the focus shifts to war-town Afghanistan with Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone. Set in war-torn Kabul as various armed factions battle for control of the city, an impoverished wife struggles to care for her invalid husband, a former soldier left brain-dead by a bullet wound to the neck. With her mute and motionless husband her only companion, she transforms him into her personal sounding board, confessing to him a lifetime worth of misfortunes, family struggles and hidden secrets.
While Publisher’s Weekly gave The Patience Stone a somewhat mixed review, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel’s lean style (translated superbly by Polly McLean) and the rather simple yet layered story that it told. Since the book’s introduction was written by Khaled Hosseini, this short book might pair nicely with The Kite Runner.
I’ve said it many times on this blog and I will say it once again. I’m incredibly blessed to live in a city with a fantastic public library system. If it wasn’t for my library, I never would have encountered these two enjoyable books. My local library was allowed me, at least for a moments anyway, to gaze into the fractured, fierce and foreign worlds created by Taslima Nasrin and Atiq Rahimi.