In Atiq Rahimi‘s A Curse on Dostoevsky Rahimi reimagines’ Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s Crime and Punishment.* Rassoul murders his girlfriend’s boss in her home with a machete. As he is standing over the dead woman, he notices “the woman’s fleshy hand, which still grips a wad of notes. The money will be bloodstained. (1)” He pauses, unable to move. What does he think about? He and his family is poor, his girlfriend’s family is poor and he is standing above a wealthy woman he just killed. He thinks about:
“Crime and Punishment. That’s right—Raskolnikov, and what became of him.
But didn’t he think of that before, when he was planning the crime?
Or perhaps that story, buried deep within, incited him to the murder.”
And so the story begins. In the middle of the Afghanistan Civil War: in the middle of bombings, fighting, and murders and yet, he doesn’t notice the war. Why? Because it is always happening, it is all he now knows. And Rassoul claims neither side. His father was a communist and sent him to Russia to study law. Upon discovering Dostoevsky he leaves law and devotes himself to the Russian writer, filling notebooks with ideas and translations.
Rahimi explores what constitutes murder, what is moral, what is immoral, responsibility, accountability, and family. Rassoul murders a woman because she forces his fiance into prostitution. But no one cares because she wasn’t his wife; she herself was immoral and a “cockroach.” (180) And yet with all Rassoul’s morality, he cannot take responsibility for his family or his fiance’s family. He lives in a dirty room that his cousin pays for. He refuses to become self-sufficient and provide for both families that rely on him. And when he commits the murder, he does not take the money, because it would be blood money. Which he does not take, not out of morality, but out of inability to pry out of her hands. Rassoul’s guilt is so strong he loses his voice. He imagines a fictitious crime by an elderly man so he can kill him, hoping that this will bring back his voice. So even his reason for murder is called into question: was it about morality or was it because he was mad and didn’t want his fiance working for this woman anymore? He was willing to kill a man merely to regain his voice.
Despite being a flawed protagonist, Rassoul is trying to make a difference. He wants people to know why he murdered his fiance’s employer. He wants to be called to justice. And yet he suffers a Kafkaesque nightmare, in which no one cares about his crime. He turns himself over to the court and presents himself to a judge. His crime is not considered serious: she was only a woman after all, and not his wife. People only care about his crime after a man notices the dead woman’s jewelry is missing. Being accused of this theft is a greater crime than the murder.
A Curse on Dostoevsky questions what is a crime and how to take accountability for our lives and those dependent on us. What happens when one is in a war? Many of the men don’t know why there is fighting. Rassoul refuses to choose a side so he is branded a Communist because his father was and because of his devotion to Dostoevsky. The book asks us who we are: are we where we’re from? Who our parents are? Who our loves are? Who our writers are? Is Rassoul betraying his countrymen for reading a foreign author? At one point, Rassoul blames Dostoevsky, claiming it’s the author’s fault. His cousin accuses him that he reads too much.
*I must admit I can’t remember too much about Crime and Punishment as I read it so long ago.
**Blog post title is from A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi