REVIEW: “The Bookseller of Kabul”

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Asne_Seierstad_The_Bookseller_of_KabulThe bookseller: Sultan Khan

Both professionally and at home, Sultan Khan is cold and demanding.  When discussing the issue of the carpenter who stole postcards from his shop, Khan is unsympathetic to the plight of his former employee.  While the rest of the Sultan’s family feels that the carpenter had faced punishment enough in the shame that he has brought upon himself, Khan sees little need for mercy, expecting more than just the beatings that the man received from his father.  When his son Mansur asks him over the phone if the carpenter can be released, the Sultan maintains that he has been insulted, shouting, “He wants to ruin my business, undermine my prices.”  This is not true; as the carpenter’s primary motive for the theft was to help feed his children, not the ruination of Khan or his business.

Khan continues to play the victim in the ordeal, still blind of reality saying, “I paid him well.  There was no need to steal.  He’s a crook.” The carpenter stole because the wages he received were inadequate to support his family—in such dire circumstances, there was a need to steal.  Khan, though, refuses to see this perspective and show mercy and he quickly judges the carpenter guilty. He feels “the truth will have to be beaten out of him” by police interrogation.[1]

Even after the carpenter implicates others, Khan’s son feels badly, remembering the interrogators promise of allowing the man to return to his family if only he confessed.  Mansur knows that the promise will likely remain unfulfilled, recalling his father’s final words before he had left for business in Pakistan: “I’ve worked my tail off to try to create something…and a bloody carpenter comes and tries to usurp my life’s work.  He will be punished.”[2] He ignores the concerns of his family and wife who hope that he will “show mercy” before subjecting the man to a prison sentence.  They are concerned that they will be responsible for the death of the carpenter’s children, should he not be around to feed his family.  They also worry that he could die during the six year sentence, saying that “many never make it through the six years” because the prison is “riddled with infection, tuberculosis, and lots of other illnesses.”  When Mansur mentions to his father that the carpenters children could possibly be dead by the time the six years was up, Khan responds with antipathy saying “If he gets sixty years, I couldn’t care less.  He is going to suffer…”[3]

Khan is ever the master of his domain, and his word dominates above all others in his household and family.  The family accepts this treatment with (mostly) silent and resigned indignation. Khan’s sister accepts his “moods,” crying the whole day when he sends her son Fazil home from the bookstore job that the child had performed so well.[4]  The boy had worked twelve hours per day, under Khan’s promise to his sister to feed and shelter his nephew. However, one day, before the end of the arrangement, Khan scolded the boy, saying, “I’m fed up with you.  Go home.  Don’t show yourself in the shop anymore.” Meanwhile, no explanation was given to the both the heartbroken mother or the boy for the banishment from the bookstore.[5]

The author of The Bookseller of Kabul, Åsne Seierstad, puts it best when she describes the Sultan’s role in the family, likening him to a king who took over “the throne” after the death of his father.  She says “not only does he lord it over the household, but he also tries to rule over the siblings that have moved away.”  She describes Khan’s relationship with his brother, who “kisses his hand when they meet.” Khan demands respect from his younger brother and Seierstad falls short of hypothesizing when she says “God help (the brother) if he even dares contradict the Sultan or, even worse, lights up a cigarette in front of him.”  She suggests that when scolding and hitting no longer work for the Sultan, “the next punishment is rejection,” as was the case with another brother, Farid, who defied his older brother in setting up his own book shop.  Baring rare exception, Khan gets what he demands from his family, or they are disowned.  “Farid’s name is no longer mentioned” as if “he is no longer the Sultan’s brother.” “His word is law,” Seierstad says, and “anyone who does not obey him will be punished.”[6]

[1] P.237

[2] P.244

[3] P.244

[4] P.200

[5] P.187

[6] P.114-115

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