THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL by Asne Seierstad

Reviewed by Janet Lan, Friday Morning Book Group ...take our poll!

The Bookseller of Kabul (May 3, 2007) It is unusual for our book group to read a non-fiction book, but on this occasion our reasoning was that The Bookseller of Kabul is written as though it were fiction. Indeed the bookseller of the title would like us to believe that it is a work of fiction and he has attempted legal proceedings in Europe against the author, claiming slander and other charges.

The author, by the age of 31, was an acclaimed international Norwegian journalist and was covering events in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban when she entered Kabul along with the Northern Alliance. At the Intercontinental Hotel where she was staying, she discovered a marvelous bookshop and a bookseller who appeared to have survived burning, looting and pillaging of his books by Communists, the Mujahedeen and the Taliban. He had wonderful stories to tell and Seierstad eventually asked him if she could stay in his home to write a book about his family. Afghan hospitality is famous and the bookseller agreed, clearly not realizing that the book arising from this experience might not be totally complimentary to himself and his family.

One of the problems was that, although all names in the book were changed, the bookseller was easily identifiable in Kabul. Consequently his alleged family life and alleged tyrannical behavior towards his family was exposed. This in a world where family life and in particular the life of female family members is very private indeed. Furthermore, the book became an international bestseller, so the exposure became worldwide.

Our group discussed the fact that Seierstad did not speak the family language and obtained her information about many of the family members' reactions and feelings second hand from the bookseller's 19 year old English speaking sister. This young lady, as the author described her, was slavishly responsible for much of the housework but had unfulfilled ambitions to be a teacher. The author's other source was from a rather rebellious and seemingly unpleasant teenage son. However, Seierstad was also a keen observer and wrote first hand about the sounds and smells, the greasy food and the overcrowded, overheated atmosphere of the family. We felt her writing however was more journalistic than literary. She does not herself appear in the book.

We also discussed the fact that just by entering this overcrowded extended family for four months, Seierstad must herself have altered the family dynamics, however invisible she tried to make herself. It is clear that she has great sympathy for the female family members' plight, but she is almost certainly judging from preconceived 21st century Western ideas of dress and standards of behavior. How would the Victorians feel about the dress and behavior of our young women today?

We were immersed in a claustrophobic world of a family at war with itself, but in the larger context in a country beginning to emerge from years of war and deprivation. There are memorable descriptions of shopping sprees under the burka, match making, weddings, public baths, a pilgrimage and even murder. It is not only the women who suffer lack of status and opportunity and one son is allegedly denied an education because he has to attend to the book shop.

Needless to say the family was greatly altered by the publication of this book. Amongst other things, one of the bookseller's wives applied for asylum in Scandinavia. We are once again reminded how fortunate we are.

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