[22 April 2010]
The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi is a stark but powerful book. At times achingly told, at times minimalistic, it is a memorable read that provides a candid and provocative look into the lives of all too often forgotten women.
Set “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere”, The Patience Stone tells a seemingly simple story about a woman who is caring for her comatose husband. She dutifully tends to him: praying, putting drops in his eyes, and feeding him sugar water through a tube. Believing him to be brain dead because of a bullet lodged in his neck, she turns him into her sang-e saboor, which, according to Persian legend, “is the name of a magical stone ... which absorbs the plight of those who confide in it. It is believed that one day it will explode, overflowing with hardship and pain”.
The more she confides in her husband/sang-e saboor the more complex and poignant the story becomes. Set primarily in one room, the story is, at times, uncomfortably intimate as the wife tells her husband her secrets, things she would most likely never reveal to another living soul. In the beginning, some of these secrets actually have almost an affection tone; she tells her husband “your father read me poems, and told me stories. He encouraged me to read, and write, and think. He loved me. Because he loved you.” And while she tells her husband stories such as these, she laughs gently and strokes his hair.
More often, though, the laughter is bitter and cynical as the unrelenting truth of her life, and many other women’s lives, unfolds. She tells her husband: “When I got engaged, I knew nothing of men. Nothing of married life. I only knew my parents. And what an example!” She continues, telling the story of her father and his fighting quails. One day, she recalls, her father bet too much money on one of his quails, and when the quail lost the fight, he had to sell her 12-year old sister to a 40-year old man to settle his bet. Even as a 10-year old child, the wife had courage, made stronger by fear of also being sold off to settle a debt, and she let the prized quail out of its cage as a stray cat was wandering by. Of course, her father was so angered that the family didn’t guard the quail that he beat them all and locked her in the cellar with the rats for two days.
And so the story of The Patience Stone goes. The wife continues to tell her husband her secrets, sometimes pausing to wonder: “But ... but why am I telling him all this? ... I never wanted anyone to know that. Never! Not even my sisters”, and sometimes being interrupted by the gunfire and bombings of the “petty war” going on outside this small room.
The wife, we learn, is not perfect; she is not an angelic victim to be placed onto a pedestal nor is she some type of mythic hero who selflessly tries to right all of society’s wrongs. In the introduction to the book, Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner) calls her a heroine but goes on to state “she is also flawed in fundamentally human ways, a woman capable of lying, manipulating, of being spiteful, a creature that, pushed hard enough, bares her teeth”. Simply put, despite the beatings, the rapes, and the mental torture, the wife is a survivor. She is a good mother, and she is strong, but perhaps her most endearing quality is that somehow she has hope. Toward the end of the book, she asks her husband: “If you ever come back to life .. will you still be the same monster you were?” and then answers her own question: “I don’t think so. I convince myself that you will be changed by everything I’m telling you. You are hearing me, listening to me, thinking. Pondering ... ”
Rahimi also finds countless ways to remind his audience that this is not just one woman’s story. Never named, the wife notes to her husband:
I didn’t go and seek counsel from the hakim, or the mullah. My aunt forbade me. She says I’m not insane, or possessed. I’m not under the spell of a demon. What I’m saying, what I’m doing, is dictated by the voice from on high, is guided by that voice. And the voice coming out of my throat is a voice buried for thousands of years.
This simply told story gives voice to thousands of women who have none. It is a story that, even in translation, has beauty and grace, but more importantly, it has power. Told in a short 142 pages, this book will take the average reader only an hour or two to read. However, the message of this book and the stories of this woman and the countless other nameless women whose stories have the potential to haunt. Lives that can be broken into such sparse elements—“They shoot a while. Pray a while. Are silent a while”, or: “The woman’s footsteps pause on the wet ground. They hesitate. They are lost. They go back the way they came”—are easily remembered.
The Patience Stone isn’t a book to be kept and reread. It is a powerful, memorable read that needs to be shared and passed on so others can hear this woman’s voice. As Hosseini notes: “This novel’s greatest achievement is in giving voice. Giving voice to those who, as the fable goes, suffer the most and cry out the least.”