Review: ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak’ is a surreal tale of occupation

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak by Jamil Jan Kochai Penguin Randhom House

In the American commercial market, the fiction of the diaspora is regularly presented as a conduit between the safety of the United States and a distant and exotic place – often in the midst of turmoil – and to find both struggle and solace in the assimilation. It’s about winning by losing, and the loss usually comes from violence and trauma that happened elsewhere, even if it was fabricated by the American military invasion. This problematic narrative is practical, and it sticks to a number of formulaic conventions, and it sells, but in its collection of short fiction, The The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and other stories, Author Jamil Jan Kochai not only throws these harmful simplifications to the wind, but also accurately points out the deceptive jingoism of these narrative schemes.

Kochai, with dark humor and lush surrealism, uses video game culture, fairy tale conventions, autofiction and meta-commentary to tell stories about military occupation in Afghanistan’s Logar province, where the author’s family is from and where many of the characters reside. , as well as relocation to the United States. The result is a collection that feels punchy and postmodern without trying too hard to lend itself to that aesthetic.

Told in the second person, the opening story, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom pain,” follows an Afghan American teenager, Mirwais, through a day of buying the title game and getting lost in its militaristic expanse, which he geographically confuses with his father’s small village in Logar. Immediately, Kochai implements the touchstones of the millennium – Harry Potter, Taco Bell, MF Doom, GameStop – to ground an American lifestyle that temporarily allows the narrator some level of dissociation from the video game’s war-torn framework. . But after smoking kush, the narrator, whether through stoner logic or slippery reality, replays parts of his father’s traumatic past, working to ease the worst of times and save his murdered uncle, while as various family members knock on his bedroom door. and try to shake him out of the mesmerizing trance of the game. Unlike the average gamer, Mirwais has a historical, cultural and personal understanding of Solid metal gearand seems to wake up from a numb state after being numb from playing other first person shooters like Call of Duty. Once Kochai sets it up, these altered realities ripple throughout the entire collection.

Kochai regularly includes bits of autofiction and family history, but it’s hard to know where the lines blur. For example, “Occupational Hazards” reads like a full resume and life biography of the author’s father, given that the final entry is titled “2016-2019, co-author of 99 nights in Logar, West Sacramento, Calif. The entry details the years spent helping Kochai through the process of researching and writing his novel, while being impressed with the ongoing book deal and publication. In a sense, the resume functions as a key to the entire collection, mentioning uncut scenes and characters from other stories. “Occupational Hazards” thus reveals some of the central inspiration of the author, but it would be lazy to conclude that this is just one more case of a writer noting what he knows behind a thin veil of fiction. From the novel writing entry:

Duties included: answering questions from the eldest son regarding the history of Afghanistan, the history of Logar, his family history, the deaths of his uncles, aunts and cousins, the Logar massacres, the atrocities of Dostum and Massoud and Najeeb and Hekmatyar, Logar’s flight, the years in Pakistan, the nature of migration, telling the story of Watak’s death and allowing him to spin the story in the penultimate chapter of a novel he is writing;

The list continues. Kochai, in this case through detailed summary, functions as family historian, storyteller, and curator, fusing imagination and brutally accurate narratives to capture atrocities that are overlooked and intentionally erased in American literature and pop culture. Displacement is a central theme in the collection, and many of Kochai’s characters struggle to find a sense of belonging, but, ironically, forced migration brings them first to Alabama and then to California.

Kochai’s fiction varies in structure and length, including a single piece of flash, but it is the three long stories that close the collection that are arguably the most memorable: “The Parable of the Goats”, “The Tale of the Dully’s Reversion” (probably a short story) and “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak”.

“The Parable of the Goats” illuminates the flip side of Top Gun’s longstanding glamourization (and recent nostalgic trip) of American air assaults. Throughout the collection, Kochai’s skillful and noble sentencing decisions are notable, but this story contains some of the most notable. For instance:

Twenty-five thousand nine hundred and fifty-eight meters above where Merzagul threw his father’s legendary sword, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel piloted a twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 , capable of carrying, multirole combat aircraft, affectionately nicknamed “the Silver Angel”. Casteel had just completed his twentieth bombing mission of the year, successfully annihilating forty-six insurgents, twenty-eight of their young wives, one hundred and fifty-six of their children, forty-eight of their sister, seventy-three of their cadets. brothers, nineteen of their mothers, ten of their fathers, twenty-two of their chickens, eight of their cows, three of their bulls, an orchard of their trees, and three thousand bees, whose death, it was supposed, would end by leading to the extinction of the human race.

In 120 words, Kochai goes from technical and patriotic jargon to the realities of mass atrocities to impending environmental collapse. The safe distance that Casteel maintains so as not to think too much about the destruction caused by his missions is immediately removed. After Casteel is distracted by a scene of two children herding goats – memories of his childhood on a goat farm set in – he is brought down to earth and captured, where the consequences are unusual, humiliating and, depending on your reading , lead to the zoomorphic transformation of Casteel into a goat.

Concluding the collection, the title’s story is told – again in second person, providing an elegant sense of coming full circle – from the perspective of a US intelligence agent tasked with eavesdropping on wiretaps in the home of an Afghan family living in West Sacramento, California. Things go awry when the father, codenamed Hajji, is alone and falls from an attic ladder, potentially fatally injuring himself if no one intervenes. Seeing all of this unfold, the narrator is left with the dilemma of watching Hajji die or intervening. The narrator calls an ambulance, but in doing so betrays the presence of their watch. It’s perhaps a slightly tearful note to end on, but illustrates the human complexity that Kochai weaves throughout these stories.

Haunting implies that a person, experience or event from the past remains present, unable to be put aside or forgotten. We are haunted by a legacy of violence and displacement, by patriotism and revisionism, but also by the distance between us and those we love. The Haunting of Hajji Hotak reduce this distance. These stories are imaginative, skillful and exciting.

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Review: 'The Haunting of Hajji Hotak' is a surreal, gamified tale of the occupation of Afghanistan

Michael A. Bynum