And The Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, manual analyze
A sprawling emotional tale from a master storyteller draws in Helen Brown.
It seems that Khaled Hosseini has been listening to his critics. Although his bestselling debut novel The Kite Runner (2003) and its follow-up A Thousand Splendid Suns (2009) were widely praised for his or her emotional intensity and storytelling sweep, various readers felt the endings of both books were jarringly contrived. In his third book, he tries to bypass tying things up too neatly by telling a sprawling tale that reads like a collection of interconnected short stories.
And the Mountains Echoed opens in an Afghan village in 1952. A parent is telling his children a haunting folktale about a monstrous div (a kind of ogre) which knocks on the roof of a poor family home and demands that the man who lives there hands over his favourite son. The little boy is snatched away in a sack. Years later, driven half mad with guilt and grief, the people goes in search of his beloved boy and finally finds him living in luxury in the div’s palace.
Although his first instinct is to take his child house, the div asks him to pause and think where the boy will have a better life. “You are a cruel beast,” says the man. “When you have lived as long as I have,” replies the div, “you find that cruelty and benevolence are however shades of the same colour.” Within pages, the storytelling father hands his three-year-old daughter to a wealthy couple in Kabul.
It’s an opening that leaves a boulder in the reader’s throat. Or the stories that scatter from it are like little pebbles, destroying off in the harsh weathering of Afghanistan’s climate and history, sending up their own little plumes of emotional dust. The stories set in a past suit Hosseini’s quasi-mythic style best, and are the most powerful: the tale of the father’s second wife and even better, that of her brother Nabi.
The long arc of Nabi’s narrative stretches from her impoverished village to Kabul, through his adventure from rich man’s chauffeur to humble host of Western aid workers. His story aches with unspoken feelings, regrets, releases, made tangible by tender details: the lapis tiles looted at a bathroom, the creases in an olive suit, the soft heel of a beautiful woman with no nang nor namoos, no honour.
Nabi’s is such a moving, human story that you can forgive Hosseini for like lines like: “A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop on-board, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later”, which noise wise if you take them in atmospherically, but become irritating if you think about them any longer than it takes to read them.
At other times, Hosseini writes a quiet line that does stay and you. Nabi is a character who slips beneath the notice of many of the novel’s noisier characters. But when he makes a decision that adjustments all the lives around him, in the hope that a woman out of his league will become his lover, he realises in retrospect that he has been foolish. But he says: “I suspect the truth is that we are waiting, all of us, to insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us.” All the and the mountains echoed characters in this novel are waiting for the startling twist of fate that will quell the ache and make awareness of their narrative.
The stories set in the present day – the warlord, the Greek doctor – are significantly less convincing although I can understand why Hosseini doesn’t want to abandon Afghanistan to its past. He even writes in a character a great deal like himself: an Afghan-born, California-based doctor, who struggles for the appropriate response on a visit to his birth land. He wants to treat the survivors of “a thousand tragedies a square mile” with respect, but he ultimately shuts them out. Hosseini, by contrast, effectively continues to bring the human faces of Afghanistan to the West.
Even if some characters get less emotional resonance than others, and the pace slouches in the centre, when the echoes of the original story go back in the closing section Hosseini pulls off his usual – impressive – trick of breaking your heart and leaving you smiling.