Fact as Fiction

How the past echoes through present-day Afghanistan

Written by Dilip Bobb | Published: June 29, 2013 3:43 am

Book: And the Mountains Echoed

Author: Khaled Hosseini

Publisher: Bloomsbury India

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 402

K haled Hosseini must be the best known living Afghan after Hamid Karzai. Karzai only figures because of his position as President while Hosseini has sold over 38 million copies of his first two books (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns) and now,with his third,the awkwardly titled And the Mountains Echoed,is certain to increase that tally — and his reputation. Despite having lived in California since he was a teenager,his Afghan connection remains a powerful motivating force for his writing. All his books have an Afghanistan backdrop,though the latest is multi-generational and multi-national,while retaining its core Afghan psyche. His books have a sprawling,epic feel and this is no different,except that in covering multiple generations,it gets tough to keep track of the characters,including one like himself: an Afghan-born,California-based doctor,who faces an identity crisis on a visit to the land of his birth. (Hosseini spent 10 years as a doctor in Los Angeles before turning to full time writing). Yet,even while characters and events in his latest book rebound between countries,the author’s recurrent theme remains the relationship of Afghanistan to the wider world.

Because of its geographical spread and multiple characters,this book reads like a collection of short stories,but played out against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s bloody history,from the pre-Soviet era to the post-9/11 intervention. Hosseini has the ability to create characters who can break your heart one minute and make you smile the next and in this book,he seems to have perfected that skill. At its core,this is a book about the effect that Afghanistan’s tumultuous history has had on those who remained and also those who left and returned to rediscover the country they can never abandon in spirit. Afghanistan,rugged,mythical,land of warriors and fierce tribal loyalties,is ideal for a fictional setting. Yet,if there is one valid criticism of Hosseini’s work it is that he tackles much the same theme,of the relationship between families separated by trauma and tragedy. Loss,betrayal,redemption,reunion are also familiar elements and they resonate in his latest book as well,as does the ultimate takeaway; the ways in which the past impacts the present in a country like Afghanistan.

It can be described as the Hosseini formula but does that translate into a good thing or a bad thing? He admits that “I am forever drawn to family as a recurring central theme of my writing. My earlier novels were tales of fatherhood and motherhood. My new novel is a multi-generational family story as well….,and the ways in which they love,wound,betray,honour,and sacrifice for each other.” The new novel starts in an impoverished Afghan village where a father sets off with his family to Kabul to find work and on the way,tells his children a haunting folktale about a div (a demon) who arrives at a poor family home and demands that the man hand over his favourite son. Years later,half mad with guilt and grief,the man goes in search of his boy and finds him living in luxury in the div’s palace. The dilemma of whether to rescue the son and drag him back into poverty is real in today’s Afghanistan where loyalties are routinely sacrificed for survival. Indeed,much of Hosseini’s writing is to do with the area that falls between fable and the real world. The father,in desperation,hands over his three-year-old daughter to a wealthy couple in Kabul and the events and characters that emerge from that decision explode like emotional grenades throughout the narrative. The stories revolve around the father’s second wife,her brother Nabi,Pari,the daughter who was given away,and her brother Abdullah,and successive generations who live under the shadow of the past. There are moments of melodrama and plot twists which sound contrived and over-sentimental and the book sags in the middle,but the formula — separated siblings against the sweep of Afghan history — is one that has worked before and does so again,albeit less convincingly.

There is an unmistakable sense of deja vu in terms of locale and plot which tends to dilute the overall literary effect. In that sense,echoes in the mountains carries a symbolism that extends beyond a book title. There is also a certain inevitability about unfolding events. Pari has an unusually powerful bond with Abdullah and from the time she is given away to another family,their predictable reunion becomes the fulcrum around which the web of family connections revolve. This is a multi-layered narrative that involves powerful characters defined by trauma,betrayal,love and terrible loss and,above all,moral compromises. Their life stories,stretching from Afghanistan to Paris,San Francisco to Greece,is both,an allegorical commentary on modern Afghanistan and the outside powers who play with its destiny,while doing much the same for the book’s characters and how the choices they make influence events beyond their imagination. Hosseini is as much an analyst of contemporary. Afghanistan history,as he is an author with a compelling narrative to relate cloaked as fiction. This is as authentic and raw as it gets in a country that is as conflicted and complex as the characters Hosseini creates.

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