The second of Stork Press’s lovely new translations sent to me for review is Freshta by Petra Procházková, translated from Czech by Julia Sherwood.
As a student, Russian-Tadjik Herra falls in love with Nazir, an Afghan man also studying in Moscow. She leaves her family and moves to Kabul to marry him having no idea at all about his family or life there, or even that it might be dangerous not to be a virgin on her wedding night. At first facing hostility from her husband’s family, she soon adapts to wearing a burka and hiding in a closet with the other women when visitors arrive. After the fall of the Taliban, Herra finds herself working for an American aid agency, where she is now the one who has to explain the customs and traditions of her adopted country to her bosses and their donors.
You might expect a novel dealing with these themes, and many other difficult subjects besides, to be heavy-going – worthy maybe, but depressing – yet this is none of those things. Procházková is a journalist with an Afghan husband. She spent six years living in Kabul after 2001, talking to real Afghan women, many of whose stories – whether comic, tragic or tragicomic – have found their way into this book. This has given her a much more nuanced insight into Afghan life than we usually get from the media, and she has a light touch. Herra’s story is often very funny, albeit sometimes in the darkest of ways.
I found Herra’s casual attitude to domestic violence somewhat unsettling, and yet it is never something that she completely condones. The abusive Qais is seen as a thug and a bully, for example. Similarly she has a pragmatic acceptance of the usefulness of a burka on some occasions which would undoubtedly rile many people. And yet that’s another particularly striking aspect of this book. Its greatest criticism is for the Western aid workers who waltz in, determined to wave a magic wand and liberate Afghan women from their “antedilluvian traditions”. While Herra enjoys provoking Heidi, her boss, it is clear that she is genuinely irritated by Heidi’s insensitivity to local customs and history.
“Herra, you’re meant to be in charge of a women’s centre, to help women become liberated and hold their heads high and you’re telling me you crawl down the street in a burka?”
“I don’t crawl. I walk completely normally.” I didn’t feel the slightest inclination to convince her that in fact I hardly ever took my burka off the nail. I enjoyed egging her on.
“But that’s terribly embarrassing for all of us. After all, our local staff are meant to serve as an example and not be more backward than everyone else.” (pp. 144-145)
Meanwhile, the other members of Herra’s extended family are equally extraordinary. There’s her beautiful sister-in-law, Freshta, wife of the abusive Qais. Nazir’s parents and grandparents represent different generations of Afghan society, and can remember a time when Western clothes were common and women could go to the cinema and concerts. They opposed Freshta’s marriage to Qais and do what they can to defend her from his violence. Grandpa, in fact, is a “solitary Afghan feminist at heart” who supports his granddaughter’s quest for an education and is often an ally to Herra. Then there’s Mad: adopted by Herra and Nazir who are unable to have children of their own, he is of indeterminate age, physically disabled and intellectually precocious. He brings a light into Herra’s life and offers yet another perspective on events as they unfold.
Translator Julia Sherwood has done a great job in introducing many unfamiliar words and concepts without burdening the text with long explanations. There are so many layers to unravel here between the Czech, Russian, Afghan and American cultures and you can read some of her thoughts on the process in her Translator’s Reflections. Herra’s conversational style comes over very well, although I did find the use of the word “minging” mildly starting in this context!
Obviously, given the time and place in which this book is set, nobody can emerge unscathed by tragedy, yet the plot is gripping, the characters convincing and the story ultimately life-affirming. On the basis of the two I’ve read so far, Stork Press seem to have a knack of picking out entertaining, readable books and I am already looking forward to seeing what they will do next. Highly recommended!