Just as he brings the ax down upon the head of the old woman who has prostituted his beloved Sophia, Rassoul thinks of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He studied Russian literature, so he knows the story well. And it haunts him. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov murders and robs a widowed moneylender to prove that some men are beyond authority and can make their own moral laws. He was wrong. Or at least he finds that he is not one of these men. He is overcome with his guilt and finally turns himself in to the police. Years of hard labor await him.
But Rassoul doesn’t live in Russia like Raskolnikov. He lives in Kabul, Afghanistan: a city torn apart by war in a country torn apart by war. They’ve fought with Russia and with themselves, and no one has any time for Rassoul’s guilt. In Islam, to kill a madam is not a crime. To possess books written in Russian, however, is enough to have you detained.
As Rassoul navigates his way around Kabul, dodging bullets and missiles, he tries to bring some kind of justice to his world. He always says, “Better to be a murderer than a traitor,” and he demands to be punished for killing the old woman and refuses to be punished for alleged Communist ties. A Curse on Dostoevsky becomes a satire in this way. Atiq Rahimi doesn’t make light of the state of Afghanistan, but rather the motivations and justifications of those who have made Afghanistan what it is, the fighting and killing for ideals that you don’t, or can’t, uphold in real life.
Take Rassoul. He longs for his beloved Sophia in a way reminiscent of Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera, and when they are finally betrothed he would rather get high in the saqi-khana than support her. He is moved to action when Sophia’s landlord prostitutes her to pay her family’s rent, but even when she’s right in front of him, begging him to be with her, he would rather wallow in his own darkness, smoke hash and blame Dostoevsky.
*A note for helping you to search for titles by Dostoevsky: in our catalog, his name is spelled Dostoyevsky.