A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Early this month marked 10 years of the latest war in Afghanistan, this time with the U.S.-led coalition forces. And still most people don’t know much about the actual country where we are fighting. This novel takes us into the war from a different angle, from that of a female diplomat’s posting there. The unfamiliar setting and likable characters draws the reader in and makes us care about what’s happening there.
‘Farishta’ is the Afghan translation of Angela, the central character, an American diplomat who is sent to the British outpost of Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. There she lives in sparse quarters with the troops in large shipping containers, which in Afghanistan are used as homes, stores and other building substitutes. As the reader follows, we find not only the familiar elements of the culture, such as kite runners and burkas, but also learn about the country’s history, Zodiac calendar and architecture.
Angela not only serves as a liasion between various levels of military and diplomacy personnel, but also with Afghanis, especially women, as the genders are strictly separated, even during family dinners and weddings. One of her assignments is to keep her knowledge of Dari, the main language of the area, a secret, in order to verify the truthfulness of the other translators. This serves as a thread of mystery through the book. But the main focus is Angela’s relationships with not only the multi-national soldiers, but with civilians, religious leaders and other interpreters. These interactions are portrayed in a natural way that give us insight and emotional connections to them.
Aside from the war, the citizens must deal with complex problems whose solutions can be elusive. One is the dilemma about the poppy fields which supplies the global drug trade. Some factions wish to cut or spray the plants to eradicate them, however, poppies are often the only income a farmer might have. Removing that will build resentment towards the troops and place soldiers in danger of retaliation.
Another problem could be easier to solve. Wood is used for cooking and children spend much of their days gathering brush and twigs for their mother’s cooking fires, instead of attending school. This adds to the already severe deforestation, mostly caused by the war and affecting farming by increasing drought and erosion. Afghanistan gets over 300 days of sun a year, so solar power would be a sensible energy source, but the government insists on building old-fashioned energy grids to link to neighboring countries still using Soviet-bloc power sources. This is already unreliable and will only get worse as more demand is placed upon it. Angela has a revelation that simple solar cookers are a practical and immediate answer and sets about making them from cardboard and foil. She gets the soldiers to help make them and is soon distributing them to women in villages and refugee camps, while wishing for a large scale production to broaden her efforts.
Though a novel, it’s filled with little details that only someone who was there would know. At times it felt as if I was reading a memoir. The author was a diplomat in Afghanistan and continues to expand the range of solar cookers in that country and elsewhere, but her family situation is different from Angela’s. The cover of the book was perfect, exotic and mysterious at the same time, whoever chose the photo was a genius. Though the novel ended in a hopeful way, I was sorry to leave the characters and that is one of the best compliments I can pay.
Riverhead Books 2011 355 pp. ISBN 978-1-59448-796-5
You can learn more about the authors efforts to make this inexpensive and environmentally friendly cooker available to people in a variety of areas at this website