Book Review | The Patience Stone

Rose Lapira discovers a strangely ‘feminist’ novel emerging from the Middle East courtesy of up-and-coming Afghan-French author Atiq Rahimi.

Afghan-French author and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi.
Afghan-French author and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi.

If this book had been written by a woman it would have passed as another piece of feminist writing. Coming from a man, The Patience Stone raised eyebrows and caused quite a stir.

On the strength of this novel, author Atiq Rahimi - an Afghan-French author and filmmaker - went on to win the Prix Goncourt in 2008 (France's leading literary award).

Born in Afghanistan in 1962, Rahimi fled to France in '84, where he established himself thanks to his writing and film work. This is his first novel in French, now translated into English by Polly McLean.

Fellow author Khaled Hosseni, famous for The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, wrote the preface for The Patience Stone, where he says that 'this novel's greatest achievement is in giving voice to those who, as the fable goes, suffer the most and cry out the least. Rahimi's nameless heroine is a conduit, a living vessel for the grievances of millions of women like her, women who have been objectified, marginalised, scorned, beaten, ridiculed, silenced.'

Set 'somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere', it recounts the fate of one woman, whose husband has been shot in the neck and lies in a kind of coma, paralysed, with eyes wide open. The action is restricted to a cell-like room, claustrophobic like the woman's life. When occasionally she leaves the room, the author lets the reader stay alone with the half-dead man.

Trailer for the film adaptation of The Patience Stone.

The war is raging on but hardy intrudes. The woman is desperate. She has been abandoned by the family with her two daughters in a house, where factional fighting is going on all around her. She keeps talking to her husband, but she does not know if he will survive his wound or if he is conscious and can understand what she is saying.

Slowly in a rising crescendo, she pours out her grief, resentment and anger, at all the suffering and injustices that she had suffered first at the hands of her family, and later by her husband and his family. Becoming increasingly more frustrated at the worsening situation, she starts to tell her husband what she never dared to say before, revealing her innermost suppressed emotions and desires, to finally reveal dark secrets about her life.  'You confess everything in your heart, everything you don't dare tell anyone.'

The husband has become the legendary magic stone, the patience stone. According to Persian folklore, the pain and laments poured onto the patience stone will be absorbed by it until it finally explodes, and the person is liberated from all torments.

The woman speaks in a halting monologue, builds up an ever increasing tension, which makes it difficult for the reader to put down the book until the final apocalyptic, nerve-shattering end. The author, by using simple and spare prose, creates a poetic, intense novel (since turned into a film, directed by Rahimi himself and with Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani in the leading role).

In this novel, Atiq Rahimi gives voice to a woman's innermost feelings. A complex person, she has been influenced by two characters: her father-in-law and her aunt. She learns from both how she can liberate herself. The aunt, who was made to marry a much older man, was abandoned by the family when found to be barren and turned to prostitution. From her she learns about men.

The father-in-law is the only sympathetic male character in the book, apart from the young inexperienced boy who has his first sexual experience with her. It is the father-in-law, who in recounting a folk tale tells her that to find happiness, a woman must renounce three things: 'self-regard, the law of the father and the morality of the mother'.

In a patriarchal society, it is understandable that one has to break away from the law of the father. What is more difficult to accept is how mothers impose the father's cruel laws on their daughters. It is the mothers who make them marry when they are still children, and who cast them out of their families when rules are broken.

Often, the author makes use of metaphors and symbolism. In her angry raving, the woman thinks she is a demon and later she comes to believe she is the angel of revelation. She rejoices in the discovery of the body, a body which society has repressed and rendered dead. Rahimi, at the start of the novel, quotes Antonin Artaud:

'From the body by the body with the body

Since the body and until the body.'

The book might upset some readers - especially when it depicts the relationship between the sexes. But it should not be missed for this is powerful writing, and as aptly described by Khaled Hosseini, The Patience Stone is 'an important and courageous book'.