The Patience Stone turns up a small intriguing novella and is the first of the many creative works I have been introduced to so far, belonging to 48 year old Atiq Rahimi, an award-recipient Parisian novelist and film and documentary maker.
Since his emigration to France in 1984; the winner of the 2008 Prix Goncourt holds both Afghan and French nationality and his stories are recognised as highly significant.
Yet without resorting to Rahimi’s stellar portfolio, cheerfully heralded in the British and French media, I stay firmly bound to the glorious if not beguiling quality of the novelist’s taciturn style and daring talent for dark detailing, that shapes his newest work.
This of course while bearing nothing short of a meditative study and careful structure wound around womanly tolerance or dutiful love however one may care to look at it.
Complex emotions stay roped together married without hesitation, to desperation and a seething anger as a frightened, abandoned wife nurses her comatose husband against the odds, in a broken ruined house where only a room, passage and cellar suffice and the woman’s stout weariness prevails like a shifting torch in the dark.
From chapter to chapter, I stayed totally gripped to the starched melodrama that featured in equal turns, a generous play of lamentations and the bizarre where time is measured not by an hour or a day but through the anxious cycle count of prayer beads and the erratic speed of breath.
It didn’t matter if the Taliban war had been won or lost. Here we are introduced to a nameless Afghan woman who has inherited the misfortune of a bombed neighbourhood.
Hers is a rural village chosen as a frontline for fighting-factions. She has two little daughters who seem strangely unpertubed by anything at all, with the exception of their playful cherubic natures, held common to a middle-class surburban childhood holding little grief.
Their only worry is in laying puzzlement at a sleeping father. For most of the plot, they pop in and out only briefly and finally vanish altogether when they are sent to stay with an aunt, who readers will learn later, carries her own share of scandalous secrets.
Meanwhile, the protagonist was married off young by an unsympathetic father, bent on a hopeless addiction to quail fights and finally to settle off a debt on having lost an expensive quail game. Thus, she is appropriately bundled off into a family where the men turn warriors and the mother-in-law hates her.
One day, because of a spat insult, a jihadist shoots her husband in the neck. He slips into a coma and this is how readers discover him on the first page.
No longer interested in the lifelong burden of a ‘useless’ son and brother and fearing for their lives, the woman’s in-laws pack hurriedly and leave the troubled region. With this illustration, one of many, the reader is gently led to a realisation that normalcy can flee at any instance in Afghanistan; that someone one knows forever may just vanish or die without fair warning.
Overnight, the young resilient woman is abandoned.
The rest of the plot shapes the wife and her embrace of a bleak if not isolated indoor world as she spills out a strange convoluted life story to a disinterested husband who represents more the unshaved mannequin than a confidante.
Yet, no matter the occasional explosion or night-time invasion by thieving rebels, she clings with painful hope to her worry beads, feeds him loyally through a tube with sugar-salt solutions, sponges, bathes and cleans him daily with watchful skill; a rare nobility likely to be bestowed on a dedicated missionary nurse.
The woman’s confessions are fascinating and while poignant and hysteric by turns, will reflect a series of complicated emotions disguised in the masquerade of both saint and demon as she pours out her anger and frustration on her once insensitive and selfish husband.
Rahimi himself eagerly volunteers to the eager banishment of a decisive self-censorship in accordance with a heroine’s usual saintly discomfiture the moment he writes in French and fights shy of a Persian composition.
In a well-conceived agenda for her lone self-imposed protection, she is also devious and cunning. For instance, she will playact her menstrual blood for the loss of virginity or lie to a passing jihadist that she is in fact a whore with which to guard herself from a rape. On hearing of her ‘impurity’, he spits and flees while she rejoices.
The brain-dead character is compared to The Patience Stone, a black stone in Persian mythology that soaks the troubles and distress of all who confess to it and where the Stone itself may create an Apocalypse once it can no longer hold counsel. The same mythology may be wound into a blurred confusion – I will keep it mysterious to stop a spoiler alert – that creates fantastical and idealistic images.
Reading the story may also provoke the reader to imagine astonishing cinematic effects, almost as if the mind and emotions may follow a film reel or be stranded in a theatre hall, watching an enigmatic play in three acts.
Often I myself felt the guilty observer in a spartan room where colour, shade and layers of shadow are taken into serious consideration or where the woman’s numerous expressions, dress and personality are held as royal court. On reading The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, I may have well stepped with unseen caution into a still-life if not disturbing painting.