Reviewed by Jed R. Cruz
99 NIGHTS IN LOGAR
By Jamil Jan Kochai
288 pages. Viking.
It seems like after a long cross-continental flight and an eight-hour drive through the mountains into the hills of Logar, Afghanistan, having part of your finger bitten off by a grumpy old dog makes for a poor punchline — doubly so because the whole ordeal wasn’t even meant to be a joke to begin with.
99 Nights in Logar is full of tales with odd endings: some funny, some sad, and some with a deep wisdom simmering just beneath the surface. All of them are worth reading, and each injects just a little more color and detail into a culture and a way of life that is unfamiliar to many who will pick up the book.
The protagonist, Marwand, is a boy who’s almost a teenager, but not quite yet. Like any twelve-year-old boy, he’s brimming with curiosity and coming to grips with the roles that society will expect of him. He’s also a fish out of water: an American citizen visiting relatives in the old country, learning and relearning the nuances of a lifestyle so far removed from life in the States.
Marwand isn’t the audience surrogate that he might seem to be on paper — he knows some of the customs and the language, and he narrates his adventures in Afghanistan in a matter-of-fact way that will prompt some readers to do some research on the side to fully understand the foreign words and terms that he uses. Many times, however, the prose gives enough context to paint a clear enough picture of what’s going on.
The plot is kicked off by the whole finger-biting incident, setting off a series of events that range from the hilarious, to the poignant, to the absurd. Marwand gets to know his extended family better: his “little uncles” Gulbuddin (just on the cusp on adulthood, and would have been handsome if not for the silly mustache he insists on cultivating) and Dawood (heavyset, a bit dim, but loyal), his pious cousin Zia (who always steps up to lead come prayer time), and all of the family who call the compound home. Then there’s Budabash the dog (though sometimes he’s referred to as a wolf), whose shadow and finger-biting prowess loom like a dark cloud over the entire tale.
Peppered throughout the narrative are smaller tales, 1001 Arabian Nights-style. They are always shared orally, and describe all sorts of events, from legends to family history to just plain town gossip. The experiences of Marwand’s family and Afghanistan’s recent war-torn history are woven together by these smaller tales, and by the time Marwand’s own tale comes to its conclusion, the reader might almost feel at home in Logar as well.
The story itself asks questions: some that seem rhetorical but are surprisingly answered, and some that are tantalizingly left to the imagination. The narrative sometimes dips into the surreal and the dreamlike, and the veracity of some events that Marwand recounts are left to the reader to judge.
99 Nights in Logar is an original spin on a familiar story. It’s about a boy and his adventures, but it’s also a setting so unfamiliar to many that it may very well be alien. It’s the little stories that ultimately ground the book so well — the brief, page-long bursts of humanity that make a new world so believable and relatable. It might take a bit of patience and additional research at first, but 99 Nights in Logar is a satisfying and entertaining read.
99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai is available at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]