This successful book is about a bookseller´s family living in Afghanistan. I took this book along to a barbeque (just in case it turned out to be boring, ho, ho) and one of the guests told me that this book had been highly controversial as the Afghan family who Seirestad lived with for four months in 2002, were suing her for her account of their lives.
Now this didn’t overly surprise me as the portraits of most of the family are very unflattering, and her attempts to disguise their real identities did not seem too vigorous. The classification of it as non fiction also seemed the most problematic as Seirestad has basically fictionalised the events in her own literary style because she was not even there for the majority of them. I am thinking that in the light of this maybe we need to invent a new genre – the reality novel??? She argues the family knew her purpose was to write a book and she has not included anything they did not agree to, however this would seem to be debatable considering the family sued her and she was forced to pay £26,276 damages to one of the booksellers´s wives. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/jul/31/bookseller-of-kabul-interview-asne-seierstad.
The first part of the book is interesting and gives some background on the history of Afghanistan and customs such as marriage and polygamy, the most interesting part for me were the parts where Seierstad stopped telling a story and stuck to facts, such as the chapter on the Taliban decrees issued after their takeover of Kabul. These decrees included:
Imprisonment for shaving beards
“Kite flying has wicked consequences such as gambling, death amongst children, and truancy”
Men with long hair will be taken to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Extermination of Sin to have their hair cut.
Prohibition against washing clothes next to river embankments
The book claims to tell the story of this local hero who risks his life to save books from the Taliban but as you read a very depressing picture of women emerges, they are essentially dominated by Sultan, the bookseller and have little freedom, apart from all the other views that an individual might hold on freedom of Muslim women. He sends a poor carpenter with a starving family to prison for theft of postcards and refuses to let his sons go to school preferring them to work long hours in his shop.
As the Guardian review points out;
“Seierstad has claimed that the book is not a criticism of the Islamic way of life – but that it “just reveals a lot about it”. This, I suggest, is disingenuous – and dangerous. Her outrage at the way women are treated in the book crackles on every page, but because she has written herself out of the narrative, her highly subjective account could be accused as masquerading as an objective report.”
It seems highly unbelievable that a family would agree to let themselves be portrayed like this so you are left with the feeling that they have been exploited by Seirsgard and that it is impossible to write this kind of book in a fictional style and not take advantage of your subjects. Is this the Big Brother equivalent of books? I would argue that it is, the author argues that you can not write a neutral story so maybe she would have been best leaving it alone.