The Death Of Humanity

There is little subtlety in the desolate opening pages of Yasmina Khadra's new novel, "The Swallows of Kabul" (195 pages. Doubleday). In lyrical, heartbreaking prose Algerian-born Army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, writing under a feminine pen name to evade censors, warns his readers that the apocalyptic world they are about to enter will not be a pretty one. "The Afghan countryside is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries," he writes. "The cratered roads, the scabrous hills, the white-hot horizon... all seem to say, Nothing will ever be the same again. The ruin of the city walls has spread into people's souls. The dust has stunted their orchards, blinded their eyes, sealed up their hearts."

Khandra does not abandon his readers in this devastating landscape--and his narrative skill makes it impossible to turn away. He takes the reader on a relentless journey through the dank alleyways, squalid homes and blood-soaked public squares of Kabul under Taliban rule. By the end of the book, we have attended more than one public execution, witnessed unspeakable oppression and stared evil brutes in the face. Yet it is the journey into the beaten souls of Khandra's characters that makes this book so affecting. Few writers have so powerfully conveyed what it feels like to live in a totalitarian society, where uncompromising zealotry has thoroughly penetrated the national psyche. This book is a masterpiece of misery.

Khandra's plot centers around two couples. Atiq Shaukat is a cold, uneducated jailer who lives with Musarrat, the terminally ill wife he despises. Mohsen Ramat is the educated son of a once prosperous family. He adores his young, feminist wife, Zunaira, who refuses to submit to the indignity of a burqa, and thus won't leave her home for the walks the lovers once enjoyed together. Two couples in soulless Kabul: one blessed with love, the other cursed with hate. Yet love and hate are really just two sides of the same coin.

Khandra flips it. Succumbing to a moment of pent-up rage, Zunaira accidentally kills her husband. Her crime lands her in Atiq's jail, where upon seeing her beautiful face, the stonehearted warden falls deeply in love. Touched by this miraculous transformation, Atiq's wife arranges to takes Zunaira's place on the execution block, using the bane of the feminist--the burqa--to fool the executioners. In the end, Zunaira flees. There are no happy endings under the harsh yoke of the Taliban.

"The Swallows of Kabul" is a ruthless condemnation of that earlier Afghanistan. But it's an equally convincing retort to those who argue that humanity, passion and love can thrive under even the bleakest conditions. By focusing on four characters struggling in a society gone mad--providing glimpses of their humanity and then snuffing it out--Khandra argues that love, individuality, humanity and compassion are doomed when zealots get the upper hand. It is a harsh but eloquent indictment of those who stood by and allowed the brutal Taliban regime to thrive.