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

Chasing Hajji Hotak by Jamil Jan Kochai Penguin Randhom House

In the American commercial marketplace, diaspora fiction is regularly presented as a conduit between the security of the United States and a distant, alienated place—often one amid turmoil—and to find both struggle and solace in assimilation. It’s about gain by loss, and the loss usually comes from violence and trauma happening elsewhere, even if caused by a US military invasion. This problematic story is useful, and it adheres to some formula conventions, and it sells, but in its collection of short fiction, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and other stories. Author Jamil Jan Kochai not only disregards such harmful simplifications, but also points to the deceptively chaotic hassle of such narrative patterns.

With dark humor and luscious surrealism, Kochai uses video game culture, fairy tale conventions, autofiction, and meta-commentary to tell stories of the military occupation in Afghanistan’s Logar province, where the author’s family comes from and where many of the characters live, as well as relocation to the US. The result is a collection that feels punchy and postmodern without making too much effort to lend itself to that aesthetic.

Told in the second person, the opening story, “To play Metal Gear Solid V: The phantom pain”, follows an Afghan-American teenager, Mirwais, who buys the title game for a day and gets lost in the militaristic expanse, which he geographically blurs with his father’s small village in Logar. Immediately, Kochai implements millennial touchstones — Harry Potter, Taco Bell, MF Doom, GameStop — to ground an American lifestyle that temporarily gives the narrator a certain level of distancing from the video game’s war-torn setting. But after smoking some kush, the narrator – either through stoner logic or slipstream reality – reenacts parts of his father’s lived traumatic past, working to alleviate the worst moments and save his murdered uncle, while several relatives knock on his bedroom door. and try to get him out of the spellbinding trance of the game. Unlike the average player, Mirwais has historical, cultural and personal understanding of Metal Gear Solid‘s violence, and seems to awaken from a desensitized state after being stunned from playing other first-person shooter games such as Duty. Once Kochai has it set up, such altered realities carry the entire collection.

Kochai regularly features bits of autofiction and family history, but it’s hard to know where the lines are blurring. For example, “Occupational Risks” reads like a comprehensive resume and biography of the author’s father’s life, as the latest entry is titled “2016-2019, co-writer of 99 nights in Logari, West Sacramento, California.” The entry details the years of assistance given to Kochai through the research and writing process of his novel, along with impressed with the ongoing book deal and publication. In a way, the resume acts as a key to the entire collection, citing integral scenes and characters from other stories. “Occupational Risks” thus reveals some of the author’s central inspiration, but it would be lazy to conclude that this is yet another case of a writer writing down what he knows behind a thin fictional veil. From the entry for writing a novel:

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

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

Kochai’s fiction varies in structure and length — including a lone bit of flash — but it’s the three long stories that close out the collection that are arguably the most memorable: “The Parable of the Goats,” “The Tale of Dully’s Reversion” (perhaps a novella) and “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak.”

“The Parable of the Goats” highlights the flip side of the long-standing glorification (and recent nostalgic trip) of Top Gun US air strikes. Across the collection, Kochai’s deft and lofty sentence-level decisions are noteworthy, but this story includes some of the most noteworthy. For example:

Twenty-five thousand nine hundred and fifty-eight meters above where Merzagul hurled his father’s legendary sword, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel flew a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather aircraft carrier, multirole combat jet, affectionately called “the Silver Angel.” . Casteel had just completed his twentieth bombing mission of the year, successfully exterminating 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 younger 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 honeybees, whose deaths were supposed to eventually lead to the extinction of mankind.

In 120 words, Kochai goes from technical, patriotic jargon to the reality of mass atrocities to impending ecological collapse. The safe distance that Casteel maintains so as not to think too much about the destruction caused by his missions is immediately taken away. After Casteel is distracted by a scene of two kids herding goats – memories of his childhood on a goat farm come to life – he is brought to Earth and imprisoned, where the consequences are unusual, humiliating and, depending on your reading, result in Casteel’s zoomorphic transformation into a goat.

Closing out the collection, the title story is told — again in second person, giving an elegant sense of coming full circle — from the perspective of an American intelligence officer tasked with listening to wiretaps at the home of an Afghan family. who lives in West Sacramento, California. Things go awry when the father, codenamed Hajji, is alone and falls down an attic staircase, potentially fatally injuring himself if no one intervenes. Seeing the whole story unfold, the narrator faces the dilemma of watching Hajji die or intervene. The narrator calls an ambulance, but thereby betrays the presence of their guards. It might be a little bland to end on, but it’s an example of the human complexity that Kochai weaves through these stories.

Haunting implies that a person, experience or event from the past remains present, cannot be set aside or forgotten. We are haunted by a legacy of violence and displacement, by patriotism and revisionism, but also by the distance between ourselves and those we love. Chasing Hajji Hotak shortens that distance. These stories are imaginative, useful and exciting.

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Review: 'The Haunting of Hajji Hotak' is a surreal story about the occupation of Afghanistan

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