Guest post by Hareem Atif Khan
‘Out beyond ideas
Of wrongdoing and right doing,
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.’
‘And the Mountains Echoed’ begins with a Rumi quote. Khaled Hosseini keeps this promise and does indeed usher the reader into a field where there is no right and no wrong, where ‘cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.’ Many readers want to know: “How is this third novel different from his previous two?” Well, one big difference is that unlike the ‘Kite Runner’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ there is no untarnished hero, no irredeemable villain. There is only life, and circumstance, and the reader is set up to ponder over rather than judge each character.
Part of Hosseini’s brilliance lies in the firmness with which he pulls together the strings of the Mashreq and Maghreb until, in flat defiance of Kipling’s prophecy, that twain finally meets. He uses English as the deft medium but the novel defies the classical western tradition of the ‘story arc’. That is, there is no simple “exposition, conflict and resolution”. Instead, from his very first chapter, Hosseini proceeds in the timbre of the ancient storytellers of the east, spinning many different tales, sometimes leaving the listener at the clutching throes of one before tumbling headlong into a totally different other. Of course the tales are connected. A character from one tale sometimes appears in another (as in the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights). And they all emerge from a common womb.
That womb is Afghanistan. Protagonists may spill in from Greece or spill out into France and America, but a merciless Kandahari wind blows through their lives wherever they are. Though it is about Afghanistan, this is not a book about war. In the voice of one of his characters, Hosseini explains: “I need not rehash for you the those dark days. I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been sufficiently chronicled…” The war may thunder on in the background but the real stories are of separation and pain, of sibling rivalry and forbidden love, of duty, identity and complicated parent-child relationships that span a lifetime.
The reader will meet leg-revealing, cigarette-smoking Nila, who rebelliously scratches down erotic poems with her pen and also Parwana, who bears none of the lightness that her name implies. The reader will meet humanitarians who rush in to heal Afghans from the war and watch how they manage, in the process, to heal themselves. Above all, the reader will question, whether a little girl whisked off to Paris or a little boy pampered in an ivory tower were better off than children who faced the poverty and war. As we can expect from life, and from the great literature that mimics it, there is never an easy answer.
Yes, it is possible to find flaws in ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ starting with the clumsiness of the book-title itself. Readers who are used to plots that provide instant gratification or satisfying resolutions will have a bone to pick with Husseini’s refusal to create neat little endings to the wounds he gashes open. The multiple sub-plots can feel distracting, especially to readers who prefer to finish their novels in one sitting. And of-course readers who dislike crying will be downright mortified. By the time she reached the last sentence, this reviewer had raw eyes.
How many stars for this book? As many as shine down on the deserts of Afghanistan.
(Hareem Atif Khan is a teacher and a curriculum expert who lives in Islamabad. She blogs at moonshine-scribbler.blogspot.com/. Follow her at @overtaketrucks.)