?sne Seierstad was one of Norway’s favourite war correspondents in both Kabul and Baghdad, and so when she wrote a book based on the half year she spent living with a bookseller’s family in Kabul it was an instant bestseller. Unfortunately Seierstad wrote in a genre closer to reality television than to a documentary or a novel, though she subtitled her book “a family drama”. No surprise then, that now that the bookseller has finally been allowed to read the English translation he’s sued her. In the reality tradition, Seierstad has concentrated on sex, illicit affairs and internal family conflicts. She declares in her introduction that everything she writes is true, but that she’s made it “literary”, and that she has anonymised the family. The anonymisation isn’t particulary convincing since there’s only one bookseller in Kabul who sells books to foreigners. She’s also used the transformation of actual experience into family drama to write herself out of the story. Once she’s established her presence in the preface, we hear nothing more of her.
Obviously the too personal stories of family members’ sexual fantasies and affairs and the descriptions of where they keep their money will be the most damaging to the family, but I found Seierstad’s respectless descriptions of their lives and possessions almost as annoying. Descriptions are Euro-centric and derogatory, as when the lace on a bridal veil is characterised as “synthetic lace like on Soviet curtains” (page 96 in Norwegian version, my translation).
Sidsel Natland recently wrote a good piece with more or less my point of view, though she doesn’t mention the Soviet lace. Apart from that, the media has been almost totally on Seierstad’s side.
Surprisingly, I can’t find anything online about the bookseller suing Seierstad in English, except a brief report from the English version of Aftenposten. Surely this is odd: the book was published in Britain in August, and has been published in 17 other langauges this year, yetreviews seem clueless as to its ethical problems. I suppose the book is less prominent in Britain than it is in little Norway where everyone loves ?sne Seierstad.
There are good sides to the book, if you look past its ethical bankrupcy. Though its quality is a very long way from Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel A Handmaid’s Tale, it portrays a society that is frighteningly similar. Without its claims of reality perhaps this would not have as strong an effect as it does.