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A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear – Book Review

I walk into the lecture theater. Above the huge blackboard they’ve rigged up a red banner on which a famous slogan has been written in white:

If I do not stand up,
If you do not stand up,
If he does not stand up,
Then who will light a torch in the midst of this darkness?

from A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, page 92 –

Farhad is a young college student living in Kabul in 1979 during the early days of the pro-Soviet coup. He has been out drinking with a friend whose politics are against the current government. Farhad doesn’t realize it, but his association with this friend and his stumbling into the path of a group of soldiers on his way home will change his life forever. He is brutally beaten by the soldiers and left lying in a sewer. As he drifts in and out of consciousness he remembers the words of his religious grandfather and is confused by the presence of a woman and her son who drag Farhad into their home to hide him from the soldiers who come back looking for him.

What is going on? What could possibly explain this confusion? Why does this night never come to an end? Who were those soldiers and why did they stop and question me? How did I end up her, with this woman and child? Why does she call me “Brother” and he calls me “Father?” – from A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, page 36 –

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear takes place over a period of a couple of days and is written from the limited point of view of Farhad. The protagonist finds himself inexplicably attracted to Mahnaz, the beautiful and widowed woman who becomes his savior. Love for her is clearly prohibited (even being in her home would be seen as a crime), yet Farhad fantasizes about taking Mahnaz away from the difficulties in Afghanistan and marrying her.

I’ve never felt this close to a woman before apart from my mother and Parwaneh. I’ve never been part of another woman’s life. No other woman has ever entered my consciousness like this. In the space of just one night, I have gone through a thousand different emotions with this woman, as though something momentous has happened between us. She has given me shelter. My life is in her hands. It is hers. – from A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, page 100 –

Atiq Rahimi’s writing is simple, yet beautiful in its stark language. There is a strong theme about women’s roles in Afghanistan as mothers and wives: Farhad’s mother leaves him with her veil hiding her grief, Mahnaz ministers to her damaged brother by offering him her breast for comfort yet hides her face from Farhad in the shadows of her hair.  Rahimi uses strong imagery and symbolism in this novella – Mahnaz and her son offer him grapes and the image of grapes is repeated again and again (grapes can symbolize blood and sacrifice) and Farhad continually notes the red and black colors woven into a rug (the black stripe in the Afghanistan flag represents the darkness of the past history of Afghanistan, while the red stripe represents blood shed and war in the history of Afghanistan). The political unrest during this period of Afghanistan history informs the novella from start to finish by giving the reader dramatic and disturbing images of a country in terror.

What else can you call those moments of nameless terror other than “annihilation?” Those moments when you begin to doubt your very existence. When you’re so paralyzed with fear that you turn to fantasies for reassurance, to imaginary women, to dijinn, to angels, to life after death … – from A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, page 83 –

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is a complex story despite its short length (less than 150 pages). I appreciated Rahimi’s use of language and imagery, although I feel like I missed some of the underlying meaning in the novella. Students of Afghanistan history will likely be able to tease even more out of this book than I have. Luckily, I am participating in a discussion of this book on January 25th in the inaugural meeting of BOOK CLUB and I hope to gain even more insight into this beautifully wrought translation.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book which I loved as it seems to imply that we are in great need of others, and without our connection to others, we must rely only on ourselves to survive.

If you meet someone on your journey, grab him by the scruff of the neck and hang on!”

The dervish is getting fainter. The sound of his voice roots me to the spot.

“And if you never meet anyone…then hang on to yourself!” – from A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, page 143 –

Readers who enjoy translated literary fiction, and who are drawn to poetic writing, will want to pick up a copy of Rahimi’s book.

Highly recommended.

Read my review of Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

Read other reviews of A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear:

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher as part of a Book Club read.

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7 Comments

  1. January 17, 2011    

    This books sounds wonderful – great review.

  2. January 17, 2011    

    There is so much imagery to explore, and it is packed into so little. It is quite a feat. I think will probably give it another quick read before our discussion next week.

  3. January 18, 2011    

    Oh this book does sound very good, and one that I think Amy form Amy Reads would like very much. I am going to have to mention it to her, and while I am at it I am going to add it to my wish list. It sounds like an excellent and complex read. Loved your review as well. I thought I was the only person who sometimes talks about symbolism and it’s so cool that you do too!

  4. January 19, 2011    

    Ooh, after reading your review I’m even *more* glad that you are going to be part of our BOOK CLUB discussion! Very well done.

  5. January 23, 2011    

    Sheila: Thanks – it was really a powerful book.

    Nicole: I was amazed at how much was packed in this novella…looking forward to our discussion.

    Heather: I love symbolism in books – but I often puzzle over it! This one is FULL of symbolism – I had to go look up a few things to fully understand it.

    Jen: Thank you! What a nice thing to say 🙂 Looking forward to the discussion.

  6. January 24, 2011    

    This one sounds really interesting, right up my alley. Thanks for the review!

  7. January 25, 2011    

    Swapna: You’re welcome 🙂

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