Strongly influenced by One Thousand and One Nights, Jamil Jan Kochai’s new novel is a cornucopia of modern and ancient stories set in the war-torn heartlands of Afghanistan.
The main narrative follows the adventures of 12-year old Marwand who has returned home for a visit after emigrating with his parents to the US some six years earlier. As he arrives, the family dog, Budabash, attacks him, biting off the tip of his middle finger. The dog then escapes and does not return. Marwand, helped by a gang of his similarly aged relatives, decides to find him.
What follows is a coming-of-age story set in and around the traditional farms where Marward’s extended family lives. The quest to find the missing dog, spread over 99 nights, allows plenty of opportunities to weave in other stories alongside. These take the form of short tales, ranging from the mythical to real-life events, voiced by family members and characters whom the boys encounter in their search. Kochai also gives us glimpses of everyday Afghan life as the family go about their daily activities of eating, squabbling, watching Rambo videos and, of course, telling stories. Marwand, as both a child and (technically) an expat abroad, is an ideal guide to Afghan languages and customs.
The setting of Logar would be a rural idyll if it were not for the war. The black thread of violence runs through every tale and the individual who tells it. It is then that we begin to see the point of the stories which is not just to entertain. They are in fact a vehicle for education, both as an oral history of the family and the nation but also, mingled with religious teaching and fables, a primer for Afghan culture. And, perhaps more importantly, they become a way of absorbing the war more easily. By encasing horrific events in a blanket of “story”, the awful realities of conflict become sanitized and distanced.
We can see this process in action as Marwand and his cousins create the moving parts of their own stories. Budabash the dog becomes a fairytale wolf. A Taliban fighter is referred to merely as a “T” while American soldiers morph into drones, each wearing an identikit helmet and sunglasses. And when Marwand goes to sleep, he is surprised to find that the sound of shelling in the distant mountains is comforting. Kochi writes:
[Gul] demanded that we sleep up there and keep an ear out for copters, which roamed about the heads of the black mountains, dropping, every few minutes, some rumbling thing that barely touched us kids in the valley. It was odd, I thought, how a few miles could turn bombs into lullabies.
Seeing atrocities through the innocence of a child’s eye is a common device to heighten their impact on the more knowing adult reader. In this novel, however, it’s possible that the author has an additional strategy. By threading contemporary life with legend, the reader is challenged with differentiating reality from fiction. Kochai presses the point by including a story entirely in Pashto. Tantalising details of this tale have been dripped all the way through the novel, but, when it finally arrives, it is undecipherable to non-Pashto readers. It is up to us, Kochai seems to say, to figure it out. Can we look beyond the form of the story, its stock characters of good and evil, to see the humanity underneath?
Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.