Review: ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,’ by Jamil Jan Kochai



Violence — whether between individuals or between nations — has a long, intergenerational tail. It haunts the lives of those who witnessed, participated in or fell to that violence, and it haunts their descendants. Jamil Jan Kochai is one of those descendants. He was born to Afghan refugees in a camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and migrated to the United States as a child. He is currently a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, and his first novel, “99 Nights in Logar,” was an interconnected series of stories with the war as a backdrop. His debut story collection is also about war, but it’s about family, too, and how each generation forges its own stories in the wake of the generation that preceded it.

Kochai’s stories employ the fantastic. Afghanistan is rendered less as a country and more as a dreamscape. The first story in the collection, “Playing ‘Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,’” involves a second-person narrator suddenly transported into his father’s past via the eponymous video game. “The fact that 1980s Afghanistan is the final setting of the most legendary and artistically significant gaming franchise in the history of time made you all the more excited to get your hands on it,” he says. As he plays the game, the narrator finds himself surrealistically placed into a scene from his father’s life, where he controls the events that will determine his own future. It’s fitting this is the opening story because throughout the collection Kochai plays similar games of reconstruction.

Too many of the stories lean heavily on unconventional form to create intrigue, a reliance that can come at the expense of substance. This includes “Occupational Hazards,” a family history told via an exhaustive 21-page résumé, and “Enough!,” a catalog of suffering paced sardonically to the prayed refrain of “All Praise Be to Him.” The dissociative quality of “Playing ‘Metal Gear Solid V,’” which feels appropriate given the conceit of the story, extends to the others in the collection with uneven results.

At times Kochai relies disappointingly on caricature. The Taliban, or “Ts” as he calls them, are thinly described fanatics. The Americans are broadly painted imperialists. In the story “The Parable of Goats,” the protagonist is Second Lt. Billy Casteel, a fighter pilot shot down in Afghanistan. Who is Billy Casteel? We don’t learn much about him. Some of Kochai’s work is hindered by poor research — actual fighter pilot training takes at least two years, so it would be impossible for Billy to be a second lieutenant, which is a rank held for less time than it takes to complete that training. Kochai also has a distracting fixation on whiteness. When he wants to signal characters are generically bad, he describes them as white; all the characters from the US military — a remarkably diverse institution in reality — are described as “a small clan of white boys.”

The strongest, tautest story in the collection is “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak,” again told in second person, this time from the perspective of a government surveillant. It follows an immigrant family in Sacramento facing financial difficulties, with a daughter who must sell her used clothes to pay utility bills. The story is narrated by Hajji Hotak’s son, who makes the following insight about his father and also about war and its aftermath: “His living — while his brothers died, while his sister died, while his cousins ​​and friends and neighbors all died — has haunted him his whole life.” What unites the stories in Kochai’s collection is that they’re similarly haunted.

Elliot Ackerman is the author of several books, including “Red Dress in Black and White” and the forthcoming “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan.”

THE HAUNTING OF HAJJI HOTAK AND OTHER STORIES, by Jamil Jan Kochai | 272 pp. | Viking | $26

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