Marking time

Scheherazade, by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (d 1903). Walsall Art Gallery.

The Patience Stone
by Atiq Rahimi,
Polly McLean (translator),
Khaled Khosseini (introduction).
Vintage Books 2011 (2008)

It’s a measure of a novel’s power when images and ideas and characters and emotions continue to swirl around in the mind; and Atiq Rahimi’s long novella does just that. A disturbing but mesmerising tale, The Patience Stone uses symbols and parables as the loci for the author’s passionate advocacy against women’s miserable lot in countries such as Afghanistan, where deeply misogynistic traditions hold sway under the pretext of a strict adherence to Islam.

Amidst factional fighting in an unnamed country a woman nurses her comatose husband, immobilised by a bullet in his neck, got not from battle but from a quarrel. Our point of view is entirely that of a fly on the wall in a sparsely furnished room, decorated with a photo of the husband and a sheathed khanjar hung at head level. We know there are other rooms, a courtyard in front of the house, a door from there onto the street, and a world outside, but — ensconced with the recumbent man — we never get to see all that.

In this claustrophobic chamber we observe comings and goings, intimate acts and confessions, stories and intermittent silences. Until the explosive conclusion.

It’s impossible to be neutral about this narrative. A sensitive reader will empathise with the woman who, despite faults, does not deserve what she does get as one subject to the horrendous kinds of abusive treatment suffered by far too many women in certain cultures — the subjugation meted out to those seen as second-class citizens or even as chattel, the habitual scapegoating, the casual and deliberate cruelty, the denial of education, and their treatment as either objects of desire or, paradoxically, unclean slabs of meat. This novel gives voice to those who are not supposed to have a voice.

As the story unfolds the woman regularly replenishes the man’s IV drip and the sugar-salt solution that rehydrates him, and administers drops to his half-open eyes. She takes her daughters to a safe house, she departs and returns, she shelters from bombs, and shelling, and stray bullets. She has unwelcome visitors — a mullah, a pair of combatants — she hears a neighbour’s coughing, and children playing amid rubble; but these occasions merely punctuate her thoughts, her prayers, her stories to her prone companion.

Be in no doubt: this is a modern Alf Laylah wa-Laylah or ‘The Thousand and One Nights’, with the unnamed woman as a latter-day Scheherazade; but there’ll be a final twist. As the days pass, and no adult family member comes to help, her vigil first involves telling on her prayer beads the 99 names of Allah, one name for each day, matching each enunciation with each of the man’s breaths. As this becomes habitual she starts to talk to this husband whom she scarcely knows; and, perhaps thinking he may never recover, her remarks become confessional. She tells incidents from her previous life, her relationship with her own relatives as well as his; and as the days go on her personal stories become more revealing and, if he truly hears her, the more dangerous because the more damning.

With Scheherazade the young protagonist told traditional stories in order to save herself from the fate of her husband’s previous wives, who were executed after one night merely because his very first wife had proved unfaithful; but by never quite finishing her tale when theoretically her time was up she’d earn herself a temporary reprieve — until her husband realised his desire for vengeance on womankind had dissipated.

We wonder if the fate of the woman in this tale will follow the same course. In amongst her narratives we recognise the recurrence of certain motifs. She recounts a parable without a sure conclusion, in effect a conundrum which she has been told by relatives and which concerns infidelity. There is the story of the sang-e sabur, the ‘patience stone’ itself, an inanimate object possibly concealed within the Kaaba which can become the recipient of multiple confessions until it finally explodes. And there are also the anecdotes she tells about her father’s fighting bird — a quail — and of the peacock feather which she uses as a bookmark for her copy of the Koran.

To me the ‘eye’ of the feather assumes an added significance from the following belief. This proposes that the peacock impregnates the peahen by means of a tear from his eye, which she then swallows. This folktale motif I think underlines why the author draws attention to some features in which the comatose body appears to either weep or needs the application of drops to clean the eyes. We mustn’t forget, either, the pattern of migrating birds on the curtains which is referred to several times; nor should we neglect that other curtain which cuts off the closet where the man is later concealed, another symbol (as also is a repaired door) evoking a sign of virginity that lies at the heart of this novel.

In a narrative where sexuality is inextricably tied up with power and potency, domination and violence, we come to a final symbol, the man’s khanjar. This is a curved dagger with intricate details on its hilt and on its sheath, an indication of status bestowed when a male assumes manhood in parts of Asia. The tradition is that it should remain in its sheath on display, but if it’s ever withdrawn it must be to draw blood. One doesn’t need to be a follower of Freud to understand why this detail is included.

This is a difficult narrative to take in, one dealing with toxic masculinity and its corollary, female disempowerment. Yet despite its traumatic moments there are moments of reflection, of poetry, of stillness. The introduction by Khaled Khosseini says what needs to be said much better than I can, and with better understanding and insight, and Polly McLean’s translation (from the French original) never stumbles or falters. This novella is very theatrical or filmic, so it was inevitable that it was faithfully adapted as a screenplay in a 2012 movie directed by the author. I feel privileged however to have read the original.

A discussion of Sophie Gengembre Anderson‘s life and work can be found here

12 thoughts on “Marking time

  1. This sounds really interesting! It sounds like there are similar themes here to Jim Crace’s Quarantine. I really like the way it is written too! Thanks for reviewing this, I’m going to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t know there was a film! I nearly always feel let down by films when I’ve read the book first so I might try and hunt down some reviews. The trouble is the directors always want to put their own slant on it (and I don’t blame them, it’s their artform) but I don’t like it either. Thanks for the link!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. In this case the author was also the director and the co-author of the screenplay, so more authentic than most. But, from the trailer, it seems to lose its one-room fly-on-the-wall feel which contributed so much to the sense that it was set in the cell of an open prison…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. With the author that involved it sounds like it may well be a genuinely good version of a book in film. However, having watched the trailer too I understand what you are saying about it perhaps losing that one-room fly-on-the-wall feel. It was the immediacy of the writing that attracted me most, as well as the themes you described in your review and then sense of isolation.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. If and when you do get to read it, Jo, you’ll of course be aware it makes for uncomfortable reading because of the trauma described and its explicitness. But the central themes of injustice and violence are far too important for any mealy-mouth narrating.


            2. You’re right of course. It’s sad though that the people who need to understand such things are the ones who may never get round to reading or thinking about them.

              Liked by 1 person

            3. Hello again! Was it really September when I first read your review about this book? Anyway, I just wanted to thank you again for sharing your thoughts on this book. I just finished “The Patience Stone” today. Although it was a short read in the end, it took me a while to get up the courage to read it. I’m so glad I did. I found it quite extraordinary – a brilliant and harrowing story of womanhood and the power of truth telling. Many thanks!

              Liked by 1 person

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