This was my favourite book of those published by Stork Press - a new independent publisher concentrating on translated works from Central and Eastern Europe.
When you read the synopsis of Freshta and learn that it is about women in Afghanistan and family secrets, it really doesn’t sound like anything new but such simplified slogans don’t do the book justice.
First of all, it was written by a Czech woman, who brought the very typical Czech humour to it, making the story a bitter sweet comedy-drama. It is very easy to write a gut-wrenching tear jerker about the sad lives of Afghan women. It has been done and sold millions. It’s a lot harder to write something funny, to give Afghan women something to laugh about. It requires more talent and artistry.
Petra Prochazkova is a Czech journalist and war correspondent, who grew up during communism and has been a war correspondent from many former Soviet Republics. All that allowed her to bring something new and fresh to the table, precisely the fantastic notion that the world is not just divided between East and West, which is what many books about Muslim culture would have you believe. The reality is that there are a million tiny cultural clashes everywhere and it’s lazy to describe it otherwise. Not only there are differences between thousands of existing cultures but also between different generations within those cultures – something that should be obvious to everyone but in the world of 140 characters tweets and 5 word headlines such nuances often get lost.
Herra, the main character and narrator of the novel, is a half Russian, half Tadjik woman who marries an Afghan man. To her new Afghan family, she represents the West, and to the British and American humanitarian workers she is just another woman wearing a burka, Tadjik or Afghan could barely make any difference in their heads. Herra tries to negotiate these two worlds, neither of which truly her own and her witty observations are the true strength of the novel. It is not because of the ‘family secrets’, ‘tales of husbands and lovers’ you should read this book but because of its cultural perceptiveness which shows a more complex picture of Afghanistan. Also, did I say it was funny?