I was sent a copy of Freshta from Stork Press, and to be honest, I might not have chosen to read it otherwise. Despite now knowing it’s rather good, I wasn’t instantly drawn in by the words on the back cover:
Welcome to Kabul: one family, countless secrets
When Herra falls in love with Nazir, she has no idea about the life that awaits her in post-Taliban Afghanistan, nor about the extraordinary family she is about to join. But as the cracks begin to show, Herra soon finds she will have to choose a side.
Deeply moving, provocative and funny, Freshta is a universal tale of husbands and wives, lovers and friends, a novel that will transport you into a truly extraordinary world.
That middle paragraph is a bit misleading. At the time of the novel Herra and Nazir have been married for 12 years and she is more than aware of the type of family she is now a member of; but it is only at the time of the novel that ‘the cracks begin to show‘ and things begin to change. Sides form.
Also, it’s not like life in Afghanistan is a topic that hasn’t been covered. While I’m not exactly an expert we have all seen the news reports, we all know how repressive the Taliban were and how life after they were no longer in power wasn’t instantly super duper for everyone. East/West divides and contrasts are always interesting, but with the UK and the US having been at odds with the Middle East for so long, one does wonder if there is anything new left to say (from a non-Middle East point of view) – especially by a writer from the Czech Republic as opposed to downtown Kabul.
Turns out, there is. Prochazkova’s narrator is Herra, a woman with a Russian mother and a Tajik father. Her Afghan husband Nazir is studying in her hometown of Moscow when they meet. They marry and travel around a bit before going to live with his family in Kabul. From this point on, Herra does not look back. She frequently references the fact that she is different, in so many ways, but she does not at any point express a desire to go back to Russia. At times she wonders how her family are, but she doesn’t seem to miss them. After 12 years with Nazir’s family she is completely engrained. She refers to his parents as Mother and Father and to his grandfather as Grandpa. Her family, from everyone’s point of view, no longer matters. They are irrelevant.
To me, it seems, if there is a theme in this book it is that of perspective. Herra understands that from the perspective of her Afghan family, her old life in Russia is irrelevant. Even her time there with Nazir seems like a ‘dream’, not quite real. Another world. Their relationship in Kabul also seems different from the carefree newlyweds that travelled around Russia.
There is also, crucially, our Western perspective of life in Kabul. Herra, as a Russian, almost counts as Western and so, especially since Prochazkova is Czech (closer to Russia than the UK), we are inclined to see her as ‘one of us’ living amongst ‘one of them’. This is not to do with race but with culture and religion, I must stress that. The practicalities (and impracticalities) of wearing a burka are often discussed, as well as the women’s absolute lack of power and the men’s lack of respect for them. They sit (are hidden) in a closet when guests come to the house, released only to serve food. However, the entire family clearly love each other, and Prochazkova is expert at creating scenes of familial chaos with ten things happening at once, and emotions running high.
With the arrival of Americans who set up a medical centre, and Herra working for them, she does consider what life could be like if she had stayed in Russia or travelled West instead of East. But mostly she pities the ignorance and piousness of the American Heidi who seems to think Afghan women are all miserable, beaten creatures who are desperate for a bikini and a bike ride. Herra grumbles to herself that it isn’t all that bad. Like the other female members of the family, she accepts that this is just what things are like. Right and wrong are not considered – they are entirely subjective concepts.
Perspective is again key: Heidi and Herra see the world in completely different ways. A very interesting scene occurs when Herra’s husband Nazir brings home a video tape (remember those?) that he insists the entire family sit down to watch. As it plays, Herra observes everyone’s reactions. They see a city on the screen, planes flying low, and then a lot of smoke and screaming as the Twin Towers collapse in New York. 9/11 has just happened. The children ask what it was all about and where it was. The adults are unperturbed – ‘the Americans bomb us all the time’ – they are not shocked. Having witnessed plenty of war and explosions and death, they are not only a little jaded but also lack sympathy for the Americans. They do not wish death on them, but they are simply not interested. They have enough to worry about with the British and American soldiers coming in to Afghanistan, and a household to deal with. And that’s it. They carry on with their day. In their world, other things matter.
There is of course the question of why the novel is called Freshta – Freshta is Herra’s sister in law, a cliche of a downtrodden woman, with an abusive, idiotic husband, too many children and not much assertiveness. She is strikingly beautiful, is never happy, and has a storyline of her own that burns slowly throughout the novel, culminating at the end. Just wait for it.
I came away from the book glad that I live the life I lead, that I am not repressed in my own home and that I have a say. I also appreciated the fact that no person – or country – knows best. Right and wrong only exist within ourselves.
Freshta was published in October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
I will be attending the official launch event for Freshta on 23rd November at the Free Word Centre in London. Click here for more information about the event, which is free.