Asne Seierstad's “The Bookseller of Kabul” is above all a humanizing look at Afghanistan. It is a nonfiction work written in literary form, and its series of character sketches give us a look into the soul of an Afghan family. In the process it gives a human face to this exotic, remote, and feared group of people. In the finest tradition of anthropology, the book's treatment of a vastly different culture sheds light on certain themes universal to humanity.
Though Seierstad depicts the lives of a real family with which she lived for months after the fall of the Taliban, her book reads like fiction. Indeed, in the foreword she explains her method of novelizing events based on what her subjects told her about what they felt or thought at a given moment. All this said, the end result is less a novel than a series of character sketches. We follow the numerous members of the Khan family, usually one per chapter, through events both special and mundane, and we thereby gain an understanding of both the people portrayed and the society around them. There are big business trips, adolescent arrogance and soul-searching, youngsters finding themselves or prevented from finding themselves. While the details of the situations surely differ from their analog in lives outside of Afghanistan, we can relate to the events and the characters. I've never ridden through the Khyber Pass by donkey, or participated in an arranged marriage, but Seierstad's matter-of-fact presentation, and my shared humanity with the book's subjects, allows me to understand what they're going through.
This is remarkable for me, because what little I've heard or seen about Afghanistan in my life has seemed to imply that people there are somehow differently human from me and the people I know. I have been fed an image of tribal religious fundamentalists consumed by honor killings and clan warfare, so much so that I might wonder if they have the same feelings as I do, if Afghanis negotiate the lines between culture and independence, duty and desire, as I do. “The Bookseller of Kabul” indicates that they do, that humanity varies in its outward forms and idiosyncracies, and even in its inner convictions, but that the emotion and experience of life bears common threads in all of us. Granted, the family depicted in the book is unusually Western and bourgeois by Afghan standards. Many members speak English, they own a number of small businesses, they are all literate and urban. But I feel the connection between the reader and the book's characters goes beyond a shared Western or middle-class mindset, to the essence of a shared humanity.
Having given a human face to Afghanis and their country, and shown us our similarities with them, Seierstad's book then allows us to consider circumstances that are unique to Afghanistan but that illuminate us on larger human questions. The first grand issue pervading the book is the immense sadness of Afghanistan's destruction over the past decades. In one part of “The Bookseller of Kabul”, a character is reading a tourism guidebook from the 1960s. Almost none of the marvels the guide describes are still standing. Afghanistan's somewhat prosperous, stable past is gone, and Mansur and his colleagues can only laugh at the bitter, nihilistic reality in which these sights no longer exist, and the leisure and safety that permit tourism or any other normal activity seem fantastic and alien. It is the only reality most Afghans have ever known. Whether or not our personal experience comes close to this wholesale destruction of the past, we the readers can imagine with a shudder the unremitting, voracious sense of emptiness, despair, and frustration of a people who has lost so much. The second striking theme in “The Bookseller of Kabul” is a sort of natural experiment of how humans behave when they have absolute impunity over another group of people. In the case of Afghanistan most men can do whatever they want with most women, abusing them, raping them, berating them, impeding them from living as they wish. Many of the men we meet in Seierstad's book behave more or less despicably, forcing women to serve their needs while giving them no recognition of their worth. But there are also many decent, honorable men depicted in the book. Though nothing around them would force them to behave kindly with the women in their lives, and they would pay no consequences for oppressive conduct, they hold themselves to a fundamentally decent, respectful standard.
Seierstad's “The Bookseller of Kabul” straddles many categories: fiction and non-fiction, exotic and familiar, war reporting and domestic gossip, moral lesson and simply good reading. She starts by convincing us that we are not so different from other people in far-flung corners of the world, then astounds us with the radical idiosyncrasies in Afghan culture, only to draw out lessons about ourselves from this seemingly exotic reality.