Atiq Rahimi is an Afghan who now lives in France. Earth and Ashes is a deceptively short novella but a very impressive contribution to the way that we think about war and society. Rahimi writes here about a family in his native Afghanistan that is split and sundered through the effects of war. The novel though isn't about that temporal and physical separation as much as it is about the psychological dramas that grief produces. Rahimi subtly guides us into the mind of the novel's protagonist, a grandfather going with his grandson to visit his son and his grandson's father to tell him about how war has effected them. But inside that very simple story Rahimi actually endeavours to do two much more interesting things- as well as many others that I'm not able to narrate effectively here.
The first is that he uses the narration of the story to demonstrate to us the way that war effects consciousness. The narration is all in the first person, it mixes dream and reality in a sequence- you get no warning about the transition from what is to what appears and back again, you have no idea at various moments about whether what you are reading is a dream or a reality though by the end you perceive a very certain and simple storyline. He writes like shrapnel- by which I mean that he writes presenting us with shards of a consciousness blown apart quite literally by the force of tragedy. At one point, the only real character outside the family presents as a truism that grief can be water and spirt out of your eyes, that it can be a sword which swipes and stabs or it can be a bomb ticking in silence and then exploding. Very much what we have here is the discontinuity which every image- the eye weeping single tears, the sword making single thrusts and the bomb exploding concrete into shards- involves. The way that grief is discontinuous- that in moments it can be forgotten or can be realised in fond memories, then in moments can wrack the conscience in different ways, then take the image of a lost and loved one and in a different context express itself as a desire for revenge upon that lost or loved one for leaving so quickly and so unexpectedly is all contained in this slim knowledge. The narrative is as broken up as the soul of the grandfather who speaks it.
The second major aspect of this story is that at its end, the goal to which the grandfather, our narrator proceeds, is a goal he turns down. He refuses it because he sees that some members of his family have not paid their tithe of grief. Throughout the story, anger at those who cannot feel, anger at those who inquire without knowing the story he has to tell, anger at useless comiseration comes through. The grandfather whose mouth expresses the tail has a silent fury about him- he wants to blow the world and its pathetic consolations sky high, he wants to see those who can truly greive the way he can, truly see their world come to an end like he has seen his come to an end. He wants to speak to his family who have suffered like him and when he finds that members within his family have not suffered in the same way, how for them the events which have destroyed him have become part of a normal working day, he feels wrath. He feels angry with his grandson who cannot understand because he is too young and because the grandson is become deaf and cannot be made to understand. In a much more profound way though the grandfather as he says himself has become deaf whereas his grandson can hear- like a blind man, blinded by a day's events, he wonders in a valley of the sighted and feels both envy and wishes that they shared his condition so that someone might understand. Because they do not pay the proper tithe to death, he reckons that they cannot understand his grief and cut away in the loneliness of his tears and his dreams, his mourning becomes the expression of a solitude passing our understanding.
Death and the way that society copes with it are things that to us living in the peaceful west it is difficult to understand. Reading this short novel, one remembers that Afghanistan has suffered many times over the last fifty years- that its history has been a history of conflict, disaster and the resulting trauma. The fact that by the end of the novella, our character refers to his grief as a bomb which might go off at any time- is a pointed reminder that grief and trauma can have political consequences. Understanding the way that grief gives way to desperation, that trauma produces problems for us to navigate as people and politicians is amongst the first steps to wisdom and Rahimi has provided us with an apt guide to the Afghan dimensions of loss, regret and sorrow.