What happens when only one story is told? The others get shoved aside. One grand narrative marches down the highway while the others are crammed into alleys, their faint cries fading from memory.
Epics from the
Kathasaritsagar to the One Thousand and One Nights overturn this, with tales within more tales within yet more tales. The highway becomes a bazaar, one that can better reflect the nature of a particular time and place. There is no single way, they teach us, there are many.
Such epics have the advantage of being huge, in order to contain multitudes. Can one do this in a work of less than 300 pages? Debut novelist Jamil Jan Kochai makes a heroic attempt with
99 Nights in Logar.
Kochai, who was born in Peshawar, with roots in the Afghan province of Logar, grew up in the United States and is currently attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His novel is, to begin with, a rebuke to those who have often said that writing from Iowa programme is pompous and mundane.
99 Nights in Logar is anything but that.
There’s a freshness and charm to Kochai’s prose which is appropriate, as his novel is framed around the travels and travails of a 12-year-old Afghan-American boy in the wilds of Logar during the early years of the American occupation. This is the young Marwand who, at the beginning, sets out on an odyssey with his cousins to find ‘the wolf-dog who, just a few weeks ago, had bitten the tip off my index finger’.
Marwand and the missing canine have a history: the boy had mercilessly pelted him with stones and more on his past trips to the region. Now, this ‘musafir from America’ and his ‘fellahs’ are keen to get him back. As Marwand’s cousin tells him, “I mean he’s the best guard dog in the village. Maybe the country. He’s fearless and ruthless. His teeth are like razors. I mean you know that firsthand, but listen, Marwand; he only bit you because he doesn’t know you, because…he was protecting us.”
Kochai has said that one of the things he wanted to do was to explore ‘the ways in which the violence of the occupation can seep into the language, the daily habits, the routines, the jokes, the stories, and the psychological development of Afghans’. This can most clearly be seen in Marwand’s earlier cruelty to the dog as well as the almost casual acceptance of violence and trauma exhibited by others.
Such acceptance can have consequences: late in the novel, Marwand and then others start to exhibit symptoms of ‘land-induced seasickness’. The disorienting symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and ‘occasional lapse into the in-between world of daydream, delusion, and mirage’. All of this changes the later texture of the novel, which veers into a nightmarish and surreal hell-scape of maze-like compounds and titanic flooding.
Notably, Marwand’s story is interspersed with many others. These are short, occasionally overlapping tales narrated by a large and sometimes confusing cast of uncles, aunts, and cousins. It’s the chief among the features that make
99 Nights in Logar distinctive.
The nested tales conjure up a recent historical and cultural mosaic of the region. From the actions of the British and Shuja Shah’s fall from grace, to the coming and going of the Russians, to strife between Pakhtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and more to the arrival of the Americans and conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
Other stories recount the influence of Islam on day-to-day life and these, along with Mawand’s reports of the fasting, food, devotion, gumption, weddings, hash-heads, tortured landscapes and, importantly, different languages, add up to a vibrant, nuanced narrative.
It’s an account that’s never very far from amused asides. At one point, a relative quietly argues ‘with a bunch of white-bearded hajis about the negative side effects of too much Coca-Cola’. Elsewhere, in a chicken coop, ‘the little white rooster, George Bush, flew at my hands anytime I picked up an egg’.
In a daring gambit, the last tale, one of a senior relative, appears in Pashto without a translation. Perhaps a signal that some divides are not so neatly bridged, that some stories will resist attempts to cross borders and join the mainstream.