My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Set in Afghanistan during the height of Taliban rule, the Swallows of Kabul is a novel in the tradition of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s not as formulaic or plot driven as either of those, but it clearly has a story to tell.
At the heart of it are two couples, each struggling to make sense of their seemingly senseless existence. Kabul is a city choking in the grip of fundamentalist ideology; women are, at best, ghosts – at worst, they are stoned to death. Men are beasts, even when they don’t want to be. Love and affection between men and women does not exist, and when it does it is a thing of shame, even a threat to be feared.
There is a small cast of peripheral characters that serve to flesh the story out, albeit superficially. Primarily, the focus is on Atiq, a jailer, and his terminally ill wife, and Mohsen (once destined to be a diplomat) and his beautiful and educated wife Zunaira. I thought I had the plot pigeon-holed from the start (two couples lives intersecting – it’s not hard to take a stab in the dark as to how that might play out – is this where Hosseini got the idea for Splendid Suns from??). However, Khadra took a slightly different line to resolve the story than I anticipated. Some people have described the final scenes of The Swallows as romantic bordering on comedic. For me, I had no sympathy for Atiq at all; I thought his actions – awakening or cleansing be damned – were reprehensible through and through. There was no revelation or learning for me, then.
The author – Yasmina Khadra – is actually a nom de plume for the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul, who was essentially forced into silence by the censors of the Algerian army in which he served at the time that he submitted the manuscript for publication. It was fairly shocking to the literary world when Moulessehoul revealed his true identity some years later from the safe haven of France. Why? Well, much had been made of the authenticity of the female voice speaking out from behind the burka in The Swallows, so it seemed ironic then to discover that voice was actually that of a man’s – and a veteran army officer’s at that.
Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it?, the novel and Yasmina’s other works continue to receive public acclaim. I think that’s deserved, but, at the risk of appearing callous, I have to admit that this book did come across as less of story-telling and more of political statement wrapped up in thin, barely developed characters.