Novels come and novels go, and every now and then an old novel will come again in a brand new guise. Respect or disdain for a work can lead to a creative spin-off in another hand, one which resurrects and reimagines the original. In the 18th century, Henry Fielding's An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews was a cruel but ticklish rewrite of literary rival Samuel Richardson's Pamela - proof that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery. Nowadays, we are more likely to see the deferential homage than the satirical swipe, a recent example being Zadie Smith's On Beauty, a shrewdly updated Howards End. When not distorting or cannibalising past plots and themes, reverentially or otherwise, writers have lifted characters from recognised classics and presented their novels as extensions or outgrowths: JM Coetzee's Foe returns us to Defoe's desert island and Crusoe and Friday; Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, an inventive prequel to Jane Eyre, follows the fortunes of Charlotte Brontë's madwoman in the attic.
Whether appropriating a famed character or two or going for an all-out literary cover version, the writer who opts for the variation on an extant and celebrated model requires a great deal of skill or audacity. For his latest novel, Atiq Rahimi, the Afghan-born novelist, film- and documentary-maker, demonstrates he has both. A Curse on Dostoevsky is a fiendish retooling of one of the Russian master's greatest works. Its very first sentence informs us not only of Rahimi's intentions but also those of his protagonist: "The moment Rassoul lifts the axe to bring it down on the old woman's head, the thought of Crime and Punishment flashes into his mind." The more we read, the closer the kinship between the two novels. A Curse on Dostoevsky has its soul-searching hero, Rassoul, plagued by the same mental and moral anguish as Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov. Its drama unfolds not in St Petersburg but amid the chaos and brutality of late 20th-century Kabul. What also becomes clear as we immerse ourselves deeper is just how apposite this adoption is, how much Rahimi's borrowing works. A Curse on Dostoevsky might not eclipse the novel it draws from, but the violence that ravages both background and foreground intensifies the doubts and fears of this Raskolnikov reincarnation, renders him more damaged and vulnerable, and so charges the novel with a powerful urgency.
Rassoul does his deed but, instead of fleeing, is gripped by a pang of crippling inertia. Blood trickles, his thoughts coagulate. Suddenly he hears a woman's voice and he takes off without managing to grab the woman's money or jewels. For days, he sinks into gloom, falls in and out of feverish hallucinations, aghast and dumbfounded by his actions. So far, so Crime and Punishment. Rahimi introduces other links to Dostoevsky's novel. Rassoul's victim was a mean old pawnbroker and money-lender. He has a girlfriend, not a Sonya but a Sophia, whose impoverished family depends on him. Replacing the detective Porfiry is Commandant Parwaiz, who is by turn flummoxed and intrigued by Rassoul's crime.
But this is no run-of-the-mill reworking with only the names tweaked and a shift in setting. Rassoul entrances us not with his re-enactment of Crime and Punishment but his obsession with its author. "Dostoevsky, yes, it was him!" he convinces himself. "He floored me, destroyed me with his Crime and Punishment. Stopped me from following in the footsteps of his hero." (Unbeknownst to Rassoul, he does follow in Raskolnikov's footsteps, but only the reader knows this.)