Feb. 10, 2011
The Death Deal
Ever since that moment
when it first occurred
to me that I would die
(like everyone on earth!)
I struggled against
this eventuality, but
never thought of
how I'd die, exactly,
until around thirty
I made a mental list:
hit by car, shot
in head by random ricochet,
crushed beneath boulder,
victim of gas explosion,
head banged hard
in fall from ladder,
vaporized in plane crash,
dwindling away with cancer,
and so on. I tried to think
of which I'd take
if given the choice,
and came up time
and again with He died
in his sleep.
Now that I'm officially old,
though deep inside not
old officially or otherwise,
I'm oddly almost cheered
by the thought
that I might find out
in the not too distant future.
Now for lunch.
It's the birthday of Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, (books by this author) born in Oslo (1970). She's best known for her work The Bookseller of Kabul (2003), which was an international best-seller and the best-selling nonfiction Norwegian book of all time.
She's the daughter of a feminist writer and leftist politician. After college in Norway she began a nomadic existence. She went to China to study Chinese and to Berlin to learn German, Moscow to work for a news agency, and to Belgrade to live in an artists' colony. She also lived in Mexico, France, and Italy. She's fluent in five languages, and is "okay," as she puts it, in four more languages.
She said she got her start as a journalist by pretending to be one, so that she could interview an opposition leader in Boris Yeltsin's Russia in the early 1990s. She continued with other freelance reporting as a war correspondent, covering Russia's war on Chechnya by living with Chechen guerrilla fighters in the mountains. She was 24 at the time.
After September 11, 2001, she spent six weeks in rural parts of Afghanistan with the commandos of the Northern Alliance, traveling on the back of trucks and in military vehicles, and sleeping on stone floors and in mud huts. She rode into Kabul with the Northern Alliance in November 2001. She found a great bookstore, a place owned by an elegant, gray-haired, Afghan man who was well-educated and loved to talk about politics and writing. After weeks spent in the war-torn countryside, "among gunpowder and rubble, where conversations centered on the tactics of war and military advance," she said, "it was refreshing to leaf through books and talk about literature and history."
So she stopped by that bookshop often to peruse the books and to chat with the owner, a man so passionate about books that he'd hid them from police to prevent them from being burned during different sieges — and had gone to prison.
The bookstore owner invited her to a meal with his family. She said, "The atmosphere was unrestrained, a huge contrast to the simple meals with the commandos in the mountains. ... When I left I said to myself this is Afghanistan. How interesting it would be to write a book about this family."
She visited him the next day to tell him about her idea of writing a book about his family. She asked if she could live with him and his family, and follow them around, in order to write this book. He agreed, and she moved in with his extended family in February 2002. She stayed for three months.
The book she wrote about his family, The Bookseller of Kabul, was a huge success. The New York Times called it "the most intimate description of an Afghan household every produced by a Western journalist." It became an international best-seller, translated into 30 languages, the subject of rave reviews and a book club favorite.
But the thinly disguised bookseller of Kabul, Shah Mohammed Rais — "Sultan Khan" in the book — was not happy about the way he had been portrayed, and flew to Norway to launch his own publicity campaign. He wrote his own book, called Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul (2007). It's about how two Norwegian trolls visit Afghanistan with preconceived notions, and then abuse his family's hospitality in order to frame a colorful, detail-oriented portrait to fit those preconceived notions. Last year, his second wife successfully brought a lawsuit against Seierstad for defamation, and an Oslo court ordered Seierstad to pay damages. But publishers stand by her work, and that court decision is under appeal.
The Bookseller of Kabul, which is translated from Norwegian into English by Ingrid Christophersen, begins:
"When Sultan Khan thought the time had come to find himself a new wife, no one wanted to help him. First he approached his mother.
'You will have to make do with the one you have," she said.
Then he went to his eldest sister. "I'm fond of your first wife," she said. His other sisters replied in the same vein.
'It's shaming for Sharifa,' said his aunt.
Sultan needed help."
Asne Seierstad's most recent books are One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal (2003) and Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya (2007).
From the archives:
It's the birthday of Fleur Adcock, (books by this author) born in Papakura, New Zealand (1934), who is the author of the poetry collections The Eye of the Hurricane (1964), High Tide in the Garden (1971), Time Zones (1991), and Looking Back (1997).
It's the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, (books by this author) born in Augsburg, Germany (1898). In 1922, he won a drama prize for his first two expressionist plays, Drums in the Night and Baal, and followed those with Man is Man (1926). Brecht was a Marxist, and he regarded his plays as social experiments, requiring detachment from his audience, not emotional involvement. His theory of "epic theatre" asks the audience to acknowledge the stage as a stage, the actors as actors, and not some make-believe world of real people.
With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Brecht sought asylum in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, journeyed across Russia and Persia, and in 1941, settled in Hollywood. In Germany, his books were burned and his citizenship was withdrawn. It was during this period that he wrote most of his major essays, his poetry, and his great plays, including Mother Courage (1941), The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948).
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®