THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL by Asne Seierstad
Reviewed by Janet Lan, Friday Morning Book Group
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(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
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.
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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