Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by Polly McLean.
If you want to read an important book about the subjugation of women, then put Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone on the top of your list. This novella, first published in France in 2008, won the Goncourt Prize that same year. It’s a rather shocking and deeply affecting read, and I know it will stay with me for a long time to come.
A bedroom confession
The Patience Stone is set in a single room in a war-torn city in Afghanistan. Outside, gun fire and explosions can be heard, along with the hurried footfalls of men carrying weapons, but inside the room it is largely quiet.
The room is small. Rectangular. Stifling, despite the paleness of the turquoise walls, and the two curtains patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight against a yellow and blue sky. Holes in the curtains allow the rays of the sun to reach the faded stripes of a kilim. At the far end of the room is another curtain. Green. Unpatterned. Concealing a disused door. Or an alcove.
In this room there is a man and a woman: the man is in a coma, with a bullet in his neck, and he is lying on his back under a dirty white sheet, his gaze fixed on the ceiling; the woman — his wife — sits beside him, feeding him through a tube, lubricating his eyes with drops and all the while praying for his recovery.
When the unnamed woman is not praying, she fills the time and the silence by talking to her husband — she treats him like a “patience stone” to which you:
“…tell all your problems to, all your struggles, all your pain, all your woes… to which you confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone. You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces.”
And what a confession this woman makes. Initially her voice is timid and afraid — “Don’t abandon me, you’re all I have left” — but it grows increasingly angry as she comes to terms with the fact that the pair have been abandoned by her husband’s family. Only her aunt, an outcast herself, has stood by her and helps looks after the couple’s two young daughters.
But as the story progresses, this rage is then turned towards her husband, as she recalls their life together — the first three years of their arranged marriage were spent apart while he fought in the war — and the ways in which he has abused her — sexually, physically and emotionally — ever since their marriage was consummated.
Women as second-class citizens
On the whole, the woman’s tale is largely a sexual confession, where her needs have been wholly subjugated by her husband’s desires. She rails against the way she has been treated as nothing more than an object for her husband’s sexual gratification, then made to feel dirty and whore-like for daring to menstruate.
Her bold revelations might be heart-breaking, painful and courageous — they get increasingly more fevered and explosive as the story progresses, she’s definitely no puritan and there are hints she’s becoming unhinged — but they give voice to millions of women who have suffered at the hands of male brutality and patriarchal tribal customs throughout the centuries.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what goes on in this room between the silent man and the uncensored woman is a microcosm of society in Afghanistan today, where women are second-class citizens, denied basic rights to education, health care and personal independence. For that reason, reading this novella filled me with a slow-burning fury, not dissimilar to the reaction I had when I read The Bookseller of Kabul in 2005.
A confronting read
There’s no doubt that The Patience Stone shines a light on some confronting and challenging truths — about war, religion, men, sex and misogyny — but it’s done in a rather understated way.
Its gentle, stripped-back prose is possessed of astonishing power, perhaps because it reads like a play, complete with stage directions — “In the street we hear someone shouting Halt! And then a gunshot. And footsteps, fleeing” — and a dramatic monologue. I kept thinking it would make a terrific film because it felt so visual and emotional — and then I discovered it was made into one last year:
I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to rent it, but it’s definitely gone on to my wish list. If it’s anything like the book, it will be compelling, intimate — and unforgettable.