The Swallows of Kabul, by Yasmina Khadra. Doubleday. 208 pages. $18.95.
Most people of Kabul never got used to the idea of the Taliban running their lives. Even after enduring two decades of war, they weren't ready for the brand of peace offered by ultra-conservative Islamic scolds from the sticks. Taliban severity reduced women to caged and silenced birds, subject to beatings for the slightest indiscretion. Men also lived in fear of punishment and execution, lest their piety be called into question.
To get a rough idea of the effect, imagine some obscure band of evangelical extremists -- the Branch Davidians, for example -- taking over Manhattan for a few years. While the group's rules might cause relatively little disruption in some parts of the Bible Belt, it's hard to imagine a warm and fuzzy reception on Park Avenue.
Little surprise, then, that at the beginning of Yasmina Khadra's novel, The Swallows of Kabul, the two married couples at the center of the action are sliding toward insanity, punch drunk and weary after butting their heads against the barriers of a world that is both harrowing and tedious.
One couple is jailer Atiq Shaukat and his terminally-ill wife, Musarrat. The other couple, somewhat younger, is Mohsen Ramat and his wife, Zunaira. Mohsen and Zunaira have lost their home and their careers, thanks to Taliban strictures. All four characters are religious and observant Muslims, although of course not on a scale demanded by the current overlords, whose thuggish enforcers lurk at every turn.
Atiq must sometimes transport his prisoners to public stonings, or to well-attended executions at the city's soccer stadium, and through a series of unfortunate twists of fate and despair the beautiful Zunaira becomes one of Atiq's wards. She, too, is slated for execution, and the arrangement offers three of the characters a fleeting chance at redemption. It is a flawed redemption, a Pyrrhic victory that will trade one life for another, and even that possibility soon begins to dissolve as the characters move desperately toward the climax. But this would seem to be Khadra's point -- that even small turns of good fortune tend to turn tragic when fear and fanaticism are allowed to rule.
The perils of Islamic extremism are familiar territory for Khadra (the pen name of a retired Algerian army officer, Mohammed Moulessehoul, who now lives in France). The two of his previous novels which have been translated into English (In the Name of God and Wolf Dreams) examined the same issue, but in an Algerian setting.
Khadra writes with economy, saying a lot with a little. Although his prose is sometimes lacking in sensory detail -- the unrelenting heat of a Kabul summer is about all we get -- the bareness seems to be part of the plan, and his style is as spare and flinty as the craggy hills that surround the city.
This unrelenting grimness can be wearying, and at times, one longs for glimpses of characters managing some normalcy against the odds, because those kinds of stories unfolded in Kabul as well. But they are tales for other novels, and other authors. The Swallows of Kabul is for readers who wish to explore despair's deepest shadows.
Staff writer Dan Fesperman has covered three wars for The Sun, including the fighting in Afghanistan in late 2001, and was a correspondent in Berlin for the paper. His latest novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, recently won Britain's Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for the best thriller of 2003.