It was over dinner in Cannes that I first heard of Atiq Rahimi and his work. My Afghan friends Zaid and Massood are friends of Rahimi’s, and he had recently won the Prix Goncourt, a prestigious literary prize that since 1903 is given to French literary works. The award put Rahimi among Proust, Duras and Rimbaud, just to mention a few; the fact that this was Rahimi’s first book in French further ignited my curiosity and by the end of the week I was reading The Patience Stone.
A year later, attending by chance an Afghan cultural festival taking place at Paris’ Theatre de la Ville, the leaflet of the event featured an introduction by Rahimi: “In my country, music can be heard everywhere. Music is the way we have to survive, art is what saves us from the horror of reality.”
Rahimi was expected to arrive that evening but did not, much to my regret. I had questions for him, questions that will have to wait.
The horror that Rahimi refers to is what we experience in his book. It is a quiet and slow horror. We experience it from the point of view of a woman’s everyday struggle, worsened by her struggle with the religious and cultural inferiority of her sex. Her husband, a freedom fighter, has been shot during an armed action and is now in a coma. He is kept and cared for in the barren home, where she feeds him serum, medicates his wound, and prays. In this bleak scenario, the description of each motion, each event is however without the pathos that would make it unbearable. It is dry as Kafka’s description of the morning in which Gregor finds himself lying on a bed as a giant insect.
Slowly and dryly we witness the events. There are no opinions, just silence and solitude. The care for the man. The prayer. The maddening repetitiveness of gestures.
Then came the movie, directed by Rahimi himself and with a screenplay co-authored with Jean-Claude Carriére -who also co-authored numerous Buñuel films- which is of course faithful to the book. Dust is the same, as is the misery, the alienation, the sense of desolation. We are missing in the movie, however, the full weight of the silence and solitude. Many characters can be seen and strongly felt, having more weight than in the book, although the happenings are the same.
Both in the book and the movie (watch the trailer) through the woman’s monologue we witness the evolution and liberation of her feelings, from fear, fatigue, to hate and thirst for revenge, to a liberating confession. She, who had never talked with him, who had never had him listen, slowly reveals her life, her thoughts, her desires and herself, getting bolder and more defiant as the days go by. We learn of the traditions, of the violence. We listen and come to accept the psychological violence she tells of, the violence she has had to endure and we indeed almost come to accept it as the way things are, just like she does.
Despite her knowing that he is listening and that she shouldn’t be telling him what is in her heart, she cannot help it, she has turned him into the Syngué Sabour: the stone that, according to the legend, would collect her words until one day it would shatter and she’d be delivered from her pain. Will this happen, in the end? Will she be delivered? The end is strong, surprising and coherent. The end will be the only end possible.
Golshifteh Farahani, a well-known Iranian actress, stars in the movie as the woman. Iran shares with Afghanistan not only its Shia heritage or the Persian language roots. Farahani has the typical bewitching eyes of Shia women; it is not hard to understand how such eyes can make some men uneasy, insecure and even violent. My mind goes to the famous National Geographic 1985 cover photo taken by McCurry, an Afghan woman’s gaze who bewitched and made the world uneasy.
Why has Rahimi written The Patience Stone (Syngué Sabour. Pierre de patience) in French? Probably to ensure that his work would get a wider audience– and in the process, it got him the Prix Goncourt. But I wonder if he also did it to take a distance from his heritage, of which the book is a harsh critic. Maybe someday I will meet Rahimi and he will tell me.