October 06, 2011

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

I haven't read a non-fiction in awhile and was surprised to find that when I did, it read much like fiction. The Bookseller of Kabul is a real life account of the author's stay with a family in Afghanistan. Asne Seierstad had met with Sultan Khan, the patriarch of this family when visiting his book store in Kabul. He likes the idea of her writing a book about him and agrees to host her in his home for awhile.

The rest of the novel goes on to tell in third person form of him and his family and their activities. It visits mostly the lives of the women and the hardships they go through. Sultan Khan is mentioned on a trip he made in the beginning and when he is ordering other people what to do in the novel for the most part. The vast majority of the story tells about his sister's and their lives, and to a smaller extent, the stories of his two wives. Since the book takes place right after the fall of the Taliban, it shows in these women's actions how the vast majority of oppression hasn't vanished, especially when it comes from inside the home. Khan is an equal opportunity oppressor though, because he wants his business to thrive he has pulled his sons out of school and they work the business all day every day. For a man who loves books, in this account he doesn't seem to care much for education.

The book starts out with a forward from Seierstad that led me to believe she would be telling about her experiences with the family. It was quite a surprise then when she never mentions herself in the actual story. She just tells of events and experiences of the different people but doesn't relate her interactions with them. Also in the forward she does give warning that she is going to be biased. She is not happy with the treatment of women in Afghanistan and it definitely shows in her writing.

There is some controversy about this book because the family it's about has brought a lawsuit (and won) against Seierstad. While I can agree that taking hospitality and then writing the not so pleasant things about the family is rude, I couldn't find enough information to explain to me why she lost the suit. The only fault I could really find with her is that she disclosed her host's hiding place for money in the novel which seemed unnecessary. The tone of the book is definitely bitter though and I wish she would have added some of the family's happy moments in the book as well.

The writing was easy to read and as said before, mostly in the 3rd person. There is an epilogue that tells a bit on where the family is now but doesn't go into a great amount of detail. While I would have preferred she had written in the first person and included her experiences while living with them, the book is well done this way as well. There is a good amount of detail given about Kabul and the family's home and I give the book positive marks for that. I could picture in my head the surroundings and the quality of life from her words.

I don't think I'd suggest this book to anybody. But, if anyone were to ask I would answer truthfully that it offers an interesting perspective on life in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Seierstad certainly wasn't afraid to pour all the dirty details into this book so it does seem to be a truthful account of life there. It was just one of those books that didn't really grab me.

The Bookseller of Kabul
Copyright 2002
288 pages

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