And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99 / Riverhead, RRP$28.95, 416 pages
Khaled Hosseini’s new book, And the Mountains Echoed, begins with a father telling his children a bedtime story: “Once upon a time, in the days when divs and jinns and giants roamed the land, there lived a farmer named Baba Ayub. He lived with his family in a little village by the name of Maidan Sabz.” That story soon ends but the tone remains similar throughout Hosseini’s narrative: simple, moralising, fast-moving. It’s not surprising that his novels have sold 38m copies. Here is a gentle, fatherly storyteller, patiently taking us to worlds we have never seen and do not understand.
Hosseini’s wildly successful previous novels, The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) demystify his native Afghanistan for western readers. His characters have children, find jobs, fall in love, perform acts of kindness, betray their kin. Their stories are ordinary ones set against a bleak backdrop of war, invasion and poverty: so much so that they hardly seem foreign by the end of the books.
And the Mountains Echoed starts in Afghanistan in 1952 and sweeps through the following decades, marked by the Soviet invasion, the civil war, the rise of the Taliban and the invasion and occupation by the Americans. (We rarely hear what any character thinks about these events, except that they are bad and they hope they end.) We start with impoverished village children, Abdullah and Pari, the brother and sister listening to the Baba Ayub story. The siblings are mystically bonded and when Pari is wrenched from the family, the plot lines grow and spread across the globe through the decades, rather like intertwining vines.
In Kabul, we meet Nabi, a relative of the children, who works as a driver for Suleiman, a cold, wealthy man, and Nila, his beautiful, miserable wife. Nila will leave for Paris and become an alcoholic poet; in one of the book’s best passages she recounts her turbulent life to a magazine journalist, explaining: “No one was touting me in Kabul. No one in Kabul considered me a pioneer of anything but bad taste, debauchery, and immoral character. Not least of all, my father. He said my writings were ramblings of a whore.”
Years later, we watch Suleiman’s mansion fall into the hands of a Greek plastic surgeon who reconstructs mangled bodies and faces after the 2001 war. Other plot lines include the rich little boy coming to terms with his father being a kingpin in the heroin trade; a Bosnian nurse obsessed with a young Afghan patient; and two Afghan-American brothers struggling to reconcile their bourgeois Californian lives with their responsibilities to their native country. All these characters are connected through blood, land, love or injury. They aspire to be good people, but often fail.
Idris, one of the brothers in California, reflects on a promise he made to a horrifically injured child in a Kabul hospital: “He has never done anything like this. There is something exhilarating, intoxicating, euphoric even, in throwing himself headlong into this commitment.”
Idris returns to California determined to save the girl. He takes his family out for Afghan food, feels alienated at dinner parties and complains to his wife that, “for the price of that home theatre we could have built a school in Afghanistan.”
Soon, however, he is consumed once again by modern American life and the Afghan girl becomes “something abstract to him, like a character in a play … He recognises the fierce determination that had seized him for what it really was, an illusion. He had fallen under the influence of something like a drug. The distance between him and the girl feels vast now.”
The girl was injured not by the Taliban, or any other of the warring parties, but in a family feud. That’s perfectly plausible but it seems to sum up Hosseini’s style: he always recuses himself from political pronouncements or, more importantly, from giving his characters a political point of view. Afghanistan, however, is a country which has been fought over and invaded many times over the centuries. Its people do not just feel passive acceptance of their fate. There is a lot of love in this novel but a noticeable absence of rage.
Perhaps such anger would be just too alienating for the reader in search of some warm escapism. This universality and humanity may well be why millions of readers devour Hosseini’s books. I read And the Mountains Echoed in a single sitting – it is an absorbing read from a master story teller. But I wonder how long it will stay with me.