A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby (1958)

Since my days studying English as an undergraduate, I haven’t read a lot of what could be called “classics”. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is certainly a classic of the travel literature genre, and turns up at every second-hand book stall and shop I frequent. I am of the opinion that there is no literature better than good travel writing, but truly good travel writing is hard to come by. Like many other classics, its acclaim is well deserved—it is funny, wry, and adventurous. It is also clearly the ancestor of some more recent travel writing on Afghanistan, Jason Elliot’s sublime An Unexpected Light, and Rory Stewart’s slightly looser, yet still enjoyable, The Places In Between.

What made Eric Newby—a mountaineering novice who worked in the London fashion industry—take on one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, still eludes me even after finishing this book. But it is his inexperience that provides much of the humour. His travelling companion, Hugh, is hardly much better. Faced with the realisation that they will be travelling overland to Afghanistan in several days, Eric and Hugh head to north Wales for a crash course which, at times, is as farcical as Monty Python:

“Full of boiled egg and crumpet, we clung upside down to the boulder like bluebottles, while the Doctor shouted encouragement to us from a safe distance. Occasionally one of us would fall off and land with a painful thump on the back of his head.

‘YOU MUST NOT FALL OFF. Imagine that there is a thousand-foot drop under you.’

‘I am imagining it but I still can’t stay on.’

Back at the inn we had hot baths, several pints of beer, an enormous dinner and immediately sank into a coma. For more than forty hours we had had hardly any sleep. ‘Good training,’ was Hugh’s last muffled comment.” (p. 37)

Things don’t exactly improve from here—they spend most of the time in Afghanistan sick, hungry, cold, and battling infected feet and difficult local guides. This latter difficulty seems to be caused almost entirely by cultural clash and misunderstanding. An attraction, if I can call it that, of reading non-contemporary literature is encountering those turns of phrase or episodes that one just couldn’t get away with today, yet that are told entirely sincerely:

“I started to cook. Unable to stand the thought of Irish stew, and as a revenge on our drivers for forcing us to camp in this spot, I concocted a loathsome mixture of soup and pork which I knew would be unacceptable to them on religious grounds.” (p. 209)

Showing contempt for one’s Afghan guides by cooking pork is cringeworthy, but surely a sign of the times. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was originally published in 1958, and though it has certainly dated, it is a wonderful chronicle of not only two men’s adventure, but of Afghanistan in a different era.

The Patience Stone, Atiq Rahimi (2008)

(Translated from French by Polly McLean; Winner of Le Prix Goncourt, 2008)

Some readers might find it a bit strange that a book by an Afghani writer, about Afghanistan, is included in a blog on South Asian literature. This is where geo-political boundaries become a bit messy. Afghanistan is not strictly South Asia, but it is often included in this category for geo-political reasons. What happens in Afghanistan is deeply tied up with what happens in Pakistan, which is firmly South Asia. I do not feel the need to justify myself too thoroughly, because this is my blog, and I can write about what I choose! But I do recognise that Afghanistan is only arguably and occasionally considered South Asia.

But I will apologise no further for the inclusion of The Patience Stone in this blog, because it is a truly beautiful and mesmerising book. Atiq Rahimi has to be one of the most unique contemporary authors from this part of the world. Though the edition of The Patience Stone I read had an introduction by Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner), Rahimi is a far superior author to Hosseini. Whereas Hosseini leaves nothing to the imagination and finds it necessary to hammer home his political commentary in the most un-subtle ways, Rahimi’s writing is understated and humming with passion, anger and injustice beneath a deceptively measured surface.

Perhaps better categorised as a novella than a novel, The Patience Stone is a brief 141 pages, as the other of Rahimi’s books I’ve read, Earth and Ashes, is too. Best read in one sitting, like a long narrative poem, The Patience Stone follows the actions of an Aghani woman taking care of her bed-ridden, brain-dead husband. The sub-title of the book, and in fact its title in the original French, is “Sang-E Saboor”, which the introductory material describes as meaning “the patience stone”. According to Persian folklore, the magical patience stone is the receptacle of the troubles and pain that its owner may tell it in times of difficulty- it is believed that one day the stone will explode from the pressure of the hardships and pain it is forced to absorb. Once the woman protagonist of Rahimi’s tale realises that her husband cannot respond to her, she treats him as that mythical stone, and pours her secrets, frustrations and desires into him. The fear is, however, that like the magical stone, he may explode.

The tales she tells him are full of sexual frustration, hypocritical patriarchal injustices, and disappointed dreams. If ever proof was needed that men are capable of writing feminist literature, Rahimi’s The Patience Stone is it. His protagonist is not only capable of acting independently despite the harshest restrictions, but of thinking and feeling truly subversively. But in case a reader should mistake this tale for a uniquely Afghani one, and associate it with that particular strand of western literature that likes to point out how backwards “they” are so that “we” can applaud ourselves for being so liberated, the book begins: “Somewhere in Aghanistan or elsewhere”. Universality is a problematic concept, but the passions and the frustrations that Rahimi’s protagonist exudes could be those of women anywhere living under extreme patriarchal control. The context is Afghanistan, the problems are not restricted to there.

Rahimi himself is Afghani, but has lived in France since 1985. He writes in French, and thus my exposure to him has been through English translation. I don’t know what may be lost in translation, but it is difficult to see that anything has been, as the translation reads so beautifully and fluidly. If ever I was to need an excuse to learn to read French, it would be to read Atiq Rahimi. But for now, I will have to be satisfied with the translations, so I hope they keep coming.