(Penguin Group, 2013)
Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel has made me cry and made me miss my family. I knew, when I bought it, that I shouldn’t read it, but probably would. I looked at it lying in the heap of to-be-read books like a mousetrap hidden in a shoebox.
I knew from having read his other books that Hosseini has a genius for capturing and depicting, in the most pared-down, discreetly poetic words, the poignancy and passion of relationships as well as the horrors of deprivation and separation. I thought it would make me cry, and it did. I read it in one sitting over the next 12 hours because I couldn’t put it down – and this is the effect of Hosseini’s writing.
He so tenderly (that is the operative word, I think), movingly and compassionately writes about families and the ties that bind them to each other, that he never fails to evoke in the reader an echoed response. Not even the most clinical analyst could remain unmoved by his words. And certainly he is not sentimental. He does not dwell on misery. He deals with moments of horror or Sophie’s Choice-type decisions in an almost dry, matter-of-fact manner. After all, what he is describing is already disturbing enough without window-dressing.
His characters suffer, by their very origins, being Afghanis, and you cannot imagine that they will survive or emerge scot-free. Even those characters who live elsewhere, or make new lives for themselves, carry within them nightmares or dreams that tie them umbilically to moments, to memories of people and places that forever shape their lives. He saves his most lyrical prose for those cherished memories:
“Seeing her father’s face in those photos stirred old memories in Pari, a feeling she had had for as long as she can remember. That there as in her life the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence. Sometimes it was vague, like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled. Other times it felt so clear, this absence, so intimately close it made her heart lurch.” (p. 189)
Astute observations of human interaction
Hosseini is a keen and astute observer of human interaction and the little rituals that tie people together, couples, friends and particularly, parents and children. He weaves depictions of affection and connectedness, like Abdullah’s stroking the bad dreams from his daughter’s head, and catching good ones for her, before sleep time; Abdullah keeping a box of feathers for Pari over the decades, with this note on it:-
“They tell me I must wade into waters, where I shall soon drown. Before I march in, I leave this on the shore for you. I pray you find it, sister, so you will know what was in my heart as I went under.” (p.400)
If there is anything you could read to convince yourself that Afghanistan is not just a miserable hell-hole where people go to get killed, then read anything by Hosseini. He writes about a life there that is multi-dimensional, cultured, desirable, and with an almost tangible texture and atmosphere. Even at its worst, when living as an opium-growing war-lord, or in miserable, terrible poverty, or in a trauma hospital or frail care unit, his characters still have valued lives, with things they cherish. The humblest mud hut village has sweet, crisp grapes and clear mountain water. In this instance, the one precious thing for Abdullah, a child of an abjectly poor family living in a small rural Afghan village, is his little sister, Pari (meaning butterfly). He is her mother and father, the sun around which her earth revolves. She is his reason for living.
Familial relationships as plot basis
The complex relationship between parents and children, and between siblings, forms the basis of the plot of this novel, and it is the consuming love between them that makes it shine and moves the reader to tears.
“It is a sunlit afternoon. They are children once more, brother and sister, young and clear-eyed and sturdy. They are lying in a patch of tall grass in the shade of an apple tree ablaze with flowers. The grass is warm against their backs and the sun on their faces, flickering through the riot of blossoms above. They rest sleepily, contentedly, side by side, his head resting on the ridge of a thick root, hers cushioned by the coat he has folded for her. Through half-lidded eyes, she watches a blackbird perched on a branch. Streams of cool air blow through the leaves downward.
She turns her face to look at him, her big brother, her ally in all things, but his face is too close and she can’t see the whole of it. Only the dip of his brow, the rise of his nose, the curve of his eye-lashes. But she doesn’t mind. She is happy enough to be near him, with him – her brother – and as a nap slowly steals her away, she feels herself engulfed in a wave of absolute calm. She shuts her eyes. Drifts off, untroubled, everything clear, and radiant, and all at once.” (p. 402)
Typically Hosseini, things are not all idyllic. There is love, there is hate too, guilt, betrayal, regret, dreadful wrongdoings that make you cringe to read them. But there is also the overriding sense of connectedness, of the value of belonging to family, of finding and being tied to your loved ones. Reflecting everyman’s need to know who they are and where they come from, to fill the hole there would otherwise be in their hearts, is a common theme in literature. Here, generations seek this, one way or another, resulting from a desperate act of self-preservation: – selling Pari to a childless couple.
The fable of the div that stole children
Running through the novel as a theme is the fable of a father who gave up his son to a blood-thirsty giant, a div, to save the rest of his family. The father then risked his life to get him back, only to discover that the giant had stolen his son to give him a better life, far more perfect than the one that the father, a dirt-poor farmer, could offer. In a final sacrifice, he leaves the son behind, because his gift to his child was that of forgetting. He would have to live with the curse of the memories and missing of his child, but his son was young, and would forget him and the hardships of his former life. In turn, the giant grants the father a final gift – that of forgetting his son.
Memories, in these characters, are both a curse and a blessing. Mostly, they are painful wounds, and much time is spent searching for answers or trying to escape the past. The reader expects it would be a relief for them to simply forget the horrors of what had happened. But not so. Oblivion turns out to be a double-edged sword. The moment that the distance between Pari and Mohammed is finally resolved is a heart-rending, breath-taking high point in the novel.
There have been many excellent novels and memoirs written by expatriates expressing a longing for their childhood, for their homeland. (My favourites are Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and and Leilah Nadir’s charming, bitter-sweet The Orange Trees of Baghdad.) It is a genre that I often dip into and a subject that is top-of-mind for me. In Vancouver, a city with a high percentage of immigrants, of whom I am one, I often look at all different faces and listen to all the exotic accents and languages and wonder – where are you from, can you go back? Do you miss it? Are you raising your children to remember – or forget? Particularly, I wonder about my colleagues and friends from countries that are at war, like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo.
I wonder whether they too are plagued by flashbacks and memories, or whether they have been granted the blessing of oblivion like in that fable. I think right now I shall stop writing and go phone my mother, while I still can.
Did you know?
The book’s title And the Mountains Echoed comes from The Nurse’s Song, a poem by William Blake, in which he ends a verse with the line “And all the hills echoed.”
“Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.”
The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed,
And all the hills echoed.”
About the author:
Khaled Hosseini has produced three novels (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed) all of them tied in with Afghanistan and critically acclaimed.
Khaled Hosseini (Persian: خالد حسینی), born March 4, 1965, in Kabul, Afghanistan, is an American novelist and physician. After graduating from college, he worked as a doctor, and following the success of The Kite Runner, he decided to stop practicing medicine and became a full-time writer. Hosseini’s father worked as a diplomat, and when Hosseini was 11 years old, the family moved to France; four years later, they applied for asylum in the United States, where he later became a citizen. Hosseini did not return to Afghanistan until 2003 at the age of 38, where he “felt like a tourist in [his] own country”, and has admitted to sometimes feeling survivor’s guilt for having been able to leave the country before the Soviet invasion and subsequent wars.
The Kite Runner was adapted as a motion picture starring Khalid Abdalla as Amir, Homayoun Ershadi as Baba, and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as Hassan, released in December 2007. Directed by Marc Forster and with a screenplay by David Benioff, the movie won numerous awards and was nominated for an Academy Award, the BAFTA Film Award, and the Critics Choice Award in 2008.
Hosseini is currently a Goodwill Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He has been working to provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan through the Khaled Hosseini Foundation.