a thousand rooms of dream and fear by Atiq Rahimi
Translated from Dari by Sara Maguire and Yama Yari
I read the Other Press Edition, 2011.
Hardcover, 147 pages.
I picked this up on a whim while browsing the newer release shelf at the Library. At 147 pages and sparsely printed pages at that, I figured what the heck with a title like that one. I might have also remembered on some level Marie at Boston Bibliophile’s review*.
Farhad is a typical student, twenty-one years old, interested in wine, women, and poetry, and negligent of the religious conservatism of his grandfather. But he lives in Kabul in 1979, and the early days of the pro-Soviet coup are about to change his life forever. One night Farhad goes out drinking with a friend who is about to flee to Pakistan, and is brutally abused by a group soldiers. A few hours later he slowly regains consciousness in an unfamiliar house, beaten and confused, and thinks at first that he is dead. A strange and beautiful woman has dragged him into her home for safekeeping, and slowly Farhad begins to feel a forbidden love for her—a love that embodies an angry compassion for the suffering of Afghanistan’s women. As his mind sifts through its memories, fears, and hallucinations, and the outlines of reality start to harden, he realizes that, if he is to escape the soldiers who wish to finish the job they started, he must leave everything he loves behind and find a way to get to Pakistan.
Rahimi uses his tight, spare prose to send the reader deep into the fractured mind and emotions of a country caught between religion and the political machinations of the world’s superpowers.
Atiq Rahimi’s a thousand rooms of dream and fear is and is not my usual fare. Its more abstract and subconscious settings are ever of interest, but I rarely read anything placed in the more concrete setting of Kabul 1979. This book is from a part of the world I have remained fairly ignorant about. I couldn’t recall the author’s name from anywhere and the previous books and the filming of one didn’t jog any memory. So really, there was very little to tantalize me but for its relatively few pages and “tight, spare prose”–and the desire to challenge myself.
The way the story is told is beautiful. I was immediately drawn in as Farhad tries to make sense of his present predicament. Is he dead, is it all a nightmare? One line of the story moves forward while the line trying to remember what placed him in his current condition works backwards. The two alternate in a nice rhythmic unfolding that is breathtakingly done, especially when one considers the shifts are not clearly delineated via text or visual format.
The lines move into a more singular strand as the situation is fully acknowledged and how to proceed must be dealt with. Rahimi doesn’t lock himself into a clever device but allows the story to dictate the way it should be told. Yet, the labyrinthine effect is held throughout.
I will not spoil how the story moves into its final pages, as the impact of that ending is formative.
“What else can you call those moments of nameless terror other than “annihilation?” Those moments when you begin to doubt your very existence. When you’re so paralyzed with fear that you turn to fantasies for reassurance, to imaginary women, to djinn, to angels, to life after death. (83)
Farhad is our first person narrator and there are times that he assumes what is happening in other places. He portrays the supposition in such a way that is so very convincing you find yourself not doubting its verisimilitude. He sometimes sinks into the melodramatic in such a way as to almost suffocate the reader. At these points I was reminded to question the veracity of the events of which I am reading—where they metaphorical or actual, and on what plane; when? I had been lulled into unconsciousness (which I mistook for consciousness). If you adore the play between levels of consciousness, of coping with trauma, with the portrayal of differing realities, I would make a study of Atiq Rahimi’s a thousand rooms of dream and fear.
I mentioned my ignorance of the culture (historical and present) out of which Rahimi is writing, but I am glad I didn’t let that get in the way of my picking up this read. The fear and desperation, the claustrophobia and indecision; the retreat into coping mechanisms, into the id, into superstition, into the dreaming; all coalesce into the necessarily surreal portraiture that would capture the all-too-painful-realities. So while I didn’t understand exactly everything that was going on, the text was still able to transmit strong emotions and a surreality of conflict that comes across as all too possible/familiar.
There are notes in the back provided by the translator. I highly recommend reading those before launching into the book, especially if you are ignorant regarding the setting (as I am). I was able to enjoy the text despite my failing to understand the political and religious nuances; I think I picked up a fair amount of the gravity and the serious implications. I wish I had read the notes before; though I know I will require further enlightenment if I am to approach this one again.
*After reading this, I wondered if it is one Marie at Boston Bibliophile had read. She is one of those book bloggers on whom I have come to rely to expand my literary horizons. Check out her Review, wherein she writes, with a comparison to Rahimi’s other works in mind,
“All of his books are suspenseful in their own way, especially Patience Stone, but like I said, Thousand Rooms is my favorite for having a strong central plot. I’d recommend it to his fans first and foremost but if you’re new to Rahimi Thousand Rooms is a great place to start. Then, if you like it, move on to his more meditative and dream-like books. I hope you get as hooked on him as I am.”