And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, was an international bestseller that earned rave reviews.
His newest, And the Mountains Echoed, is even better.
It offers the same kind of masterful storytelling, haunting portrayal of war-ravaged Afghanistan and insight into the life of Afghan expatriates. Both novels, too, centre on betrayal. But the more complex structure of the newer book reveals a far more confident and experienced author. And if Mountains tugs at a few too many heartstrings and relies on one enormous contrivance, it generally avoids the excessive sentimentality that some critics found in The Kite Runner.
And the Mountains Echoed is a jigsaw puzzle made up of dozens of pieces from tales told by eight narrators, all of whom are at least tangentially connected to the family of Saboor, an impoverished labourer from the apparently fictitious Afghan village of Shadbagh.
The key figures are Saboor’s son and daughter from his first marriage – Abdullah, who is 10 when the book begins, and Pari, then age 3½. They are inseparable, closer than twins. “He loved the fact that he was the one to help with her first step, to gasp at her first uttered word,” Hosseini writes. “That was his purpose, he believed, the reason God had made him, so he would be there to take care of Pari.”
Their mother had died giving birth to Pari, and soon afterwards Saboor married another village woman, Parwana, who had been a childhood playmate and had secretly loved him all these years. However, Saboor and Parwana’s newborn son Omar died during a cruelly cold winter because they couldn’t afford fuel for heat. Now another winter approaches; they have another baby boy, Iqbal, who is just one year old; and there is still not enough food, fuel or money.
Meanwhile, Parwana’s handsome older brother, Nabi – the success story of the village – works as a chauffeur and cook in Kabul for Suleiman and Nila Wahdati, a wealthy and westernised, if apparently mismatched, couple. Nila is a beautiful, talented, and rebellious poet who longs for children but is unable to conceive.
The solution for both sets of problems is obvious – at least, to Nabi. Nila will buy a daughter, and Saboor will have the money for a new cast-iron stove and winter clothing for the rest of his family.
As Nabi recalls the moment, “Pari slung over my shoulder, panic-stricken, kicking her legs, shrieking, Abollah! Abollah! as I whisked her away. Abdullah, screaming his sister’s name, trying to fight past his father.”
From this traumatic beginning, the pool of narrators expands to include not just the young Parwana and the grown Pari, but also an expatriate physician who had lived near the Wahdati house in Kabul with his cousin when they were boys in the 1970s; the Greek surgeon who stays in that house while working for a humanitarian organisation after the fall of the Taliban; and the 12-year-old son of a warlord who has commandeered the Saboor family’s land. The settings dart from Shadbagh to Kabul to Paris to Silicon Valley to the tiny Greek island of Tinos, back and forth in time from 1949 to 2010, to encompass the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the rule of the Taliban and the Nato-led war.
The tales wind in and around each other. They go back to explain how Parwana came to marry Saboor, and why Nila married Suleiman, and then forward three generations to Saboor’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as sideways to follow the trails of neighbours and acquaintances. Nila and Pari move to Paris. The Kabul cousins, Idris and Timur, move to the US. Nabi ultimately inherits the now-rundown Wahdati house, which becomes the focal point where the cousins, the Greek surgeon and many others interconnect.
Most of the stories are told in third person, but there is also a long letter written by Nabi and selections from a magazine interview with Nila. Each narrator contributes at least one crucial piece to solving the puzzle, even if it’s only the passing mention of an Afghan restaurant in California.
Helping to hold the book together, in addition to the sometimes tenuous connections to Abdullah and Pari, are several recurring patterns.
One pattern is pairs of opposites, often competing for the same man – one person who is awkward, stolid, and unattractive; the other charismatic, good-looking, and popular. Parwana and her sister Masooma. Idris and Timor. Pari and Nila. The Greek surgeon’s mother and her childhood friend, Madaline.
A more important pattern involves caretakers. Masooma (who is paralysed), Suleiman (who is felled by a stroke), the young girl Roshi (whose uncle slashed her head with an axe), and the Greek surgeon’s friend Thalia (whose face was mauled by a dog) all suffer severe physical infirmities. Each has someone who takes care of him or her – or fails to – or resents doing so.
“Parwana wants to howl but she forces herself into a weak smile,” after Masooma again apologises for all the trouble she has caused Parwana. Ever since the accident that paralysed Masooma at age 16, more than a dozen years earlier, Parwana has been single-handedly feeding, cleaning and caring for her beautiful twin sister. Now, there is a rumour in town that Saboor is looking for a new wife, but what good is that to Parwana? “What Saboor needs is a woman unanchored … who is free to devote herself to him, to his boy, to his newborn daughter. Parwana’s time is already consumed. Accounted for. Her whole life.”
The book’s title may reflect the structure, as well. Perhaps the various narratives are echoing and contrasting with each other, and echoing off “the hazy chain of mountains” near Shadbagh.
Of course, underlying nearly all the narratives is the constant contrast between West and East, city and village, diaspora Afghans and those who stayed.
The cousins’ tale illustrates this contrast with particular starkness. It’s also one of the better examples where Hosseini holds back, allowing understatement and actions to speak for themselves without layering on the emotions and explanations.
Idris and Timur travel to Kabul in 2003 to try to reclaim their family home. During the brief but harrowing visit, Idris finds himself drawn to the horribly injured, nine-year-old Roshi, and he promises to arrange an operation.
On his first day back in California, everything about the West irritates Idris. People barrage him with too many questions about Afghanistan; his sons are too absorbed in their video games and television; even the traffic is too orderly. “He smiles at the memory of all the daredevil adolescent cabbies with whom he and Timur entrusted their lives in Kabul.” The expensive home entertainment centre that he had enthusiastically ordered before he left now seems like an immoral extravagance.
But reality inevitably erodes those feelings. At work, Idris is hit with piles of phone messages, emails, an overbooked schedule, and worst of all, a disciplinary review for a case he wrongly diagnosed. At home, on the other hand, his previously alienated sons now cuddle happily with him as they all watch a movie on the brand-new entertainment centre.
And Roshi? “He has paid his dues. Why should he feel bad? This is his family. This is his life.”
Unfortunately, some chapters show less restraint. Perhaps inevitably in a book about modern Afghanistan, a land of so much suffering, there are plenty of Roshi-like occasions for jerking tears from readers’ eyes.
Coincidence is a cousin of melodrama, and it’s just a bit too convenient that Nabi writes a 60-page letter that spells out everything.
The novel’s other major flaw is that the narrative voices all sound alike. A semi-literate refugee boy speaks with the same sentence structure as the French maths professor, both of whom sound like a British schoolboy. Guess which one says the following: “They’re strangers, practically. I guess if he really had to, my father would go to him. But he wants to make a go of it on his own here.”
But the good news is that Hosseini started with tremendous talent, and he continues to get better. Whether or not they read this book, fans and sceptics alike should eagerly await the next one.
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.