After 36 years in the Algerian military, Mohamed Moulessehoul knows all about war. But now that he's beaten his sword into a pen, it may prove mightier. Even before he left the Army to live in France, Moulessehoul had started writing under his wife's name to avoid military censors. That he continues to wear the feminine veil speaks volumes about this iconoclastic Islamic author. His latest novel is a surgical strike against fundamentalism more penetrating than anything the Pentagon could devise.
"The Swallows of Kabul," a popular and critical success in France, comes to America in a stirring translation by John Cullen. It moves just a few feet off the ground with the otherworldliness of a tragic legend to tell the story of two doomed couples in the Afghan capital ruined and ruled by Taliban soldiers.
Mohsen and his wife, Zunaira, came from prosperous families, and when they met in college, they had every reason to anticipate interesting careers in government. But the clerics' zeal and a long conflict with the Soviets have scorched away those hopes and reduced their beautiful city "to an advanced stage of decomposition."
The novel's depiction of Kabul is impressionistic but frightening, suggesting the horror of its poverty and the terror of its culture with glancing blows and short flights of poetic imagery.
"Everywhere," he writes, "in the squares, on the streets, among the vehicles, or around the coffee shops - there are kids, hundreds of little kids with snot-green nostrils and piercing eyes, disturbing, sickly, on their own, many barely old enough to walk, and all silently braiding the stout rope they'll use, someday, to lynch their country's last hope of salvation."
The novel begins as Mohsen wanders the decimated city - all he has left to do nowadays - and spots a public stoning of an adulterous woman.
Despite his pacifism and his contempt for the mullahs' brutality, Mohsen feels himself suddenly infected by the crowd's bloodlust, and in a moment he's hurling rocks at a veiled prisoner buried up to her knees in dirt. Shocked by his role in the execution, he runs home and confesses to his wife, a lawyer who worked to expand women's rights before the revolution.
Their clumsy efforts to patch over his shocking behavior only lead to further conflict, which eventually brings his wife into contact with another unhappy home nearby.
There, a jailer named Atiq is similarly baffled by the changes coming over him. After decades of war, Atiq's implacable veneer seems ready to shatter from the hatred boiling inside him. At home with his dying wife, he wrestles with feelings of revulsion and pity, torn between his gratitude for her long devotion and a sense that he deserves better.
"What's happening to me?" he asks himself. "I can't bear the dark, I can't bear the light ... I can't tolerate old people or children, I hate it when anybody looks at me or touches me. In fact, I can hardly stand myself."
This, of course, is Khadra's real subject, the psychological poison of militant Islam. He conveys the physical deprivations and humiliations with a few startling details, but the book's most devastating sections explore the mental damage of living under such terror.
Despite their different positions in Kabul society, for both Mohsen and Atiq, the most devastating effect is the loss of intimacy. In the "puritanical ordeal" that Kabul has become, suspicion darkens every relationship. Affection, wit, and doubt, all the ambiguous emotions that enrich and deepen life, have been burned away.
The risk of this stunning book is that its surreal setting, its bizarre insularity - while true to life in Kabul - could extract it from the world we live in and reaffirm our pat superiority and innocence.
The United States' support for the Taliban during their conflict with the Soviets is never mentioned. And now that America has largely removed them, it's tempting to imagine that "The Swallows of Kabul" offers only a vision of the terrible despotism we've vanquished. But that would be like supposing that "1984" has nothing to tell us in 2004. After all, when a single female breast interrupted five hours of sanctified male violence in last Sunday's Super Bowl, the mullahs of MTV, CBS, and the FCC quickly issued a fatwa of their own. Even in decadent America, we know abomination when we see it, and it still usually looks like a woman.
But Khadra's sensitivity to the wrenching personal problems these two couples face transcends the peculiarities of their place or politics.
In the end, the alien details of this city are not as disturbing as the moments of identification we feel with them. Atiq and his wife ultimately make a choice that refracts rays of love or madness depending on how you turn it, and the conclusion arrives with shattering impact, amplified by its moral ambiguity.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.