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“I have thought long on where to begin this story…A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later.”
Khaled Hosseini’s power as a storyteller has always been in the emotional resonance of his tales; it was on this basis that The Kite Runner enthralled millions worldwide. He excels in intertwining multiple narratives that run through generations seamlessly; all of his characters are connected to one another in some way.
A major theme that runs through Hosseini’s work is a sense of disconnect from one’s past in the wake of great change. More specifically, his characters often experience one event that acts as a fateful turning point and reverberates through the rest of their life. He seems fascinated with the concept that a single event can shape the person we become, changing us irreparably. This was a major preoccupation of The Kite Runner, but can equally be felt in And the Mountains Echoed.
“I suspect the truth is that we are waiting, all of us, against insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us.”
One of the most emotionally impactful narratives of And the Mountains Echoed is that of Abdullah and Pari, the inseparable brother and sister who are cruelly and fatefully torn apart from one another at a young age. Pari is too young when she is separated from Abdullah to remember what she has lost as she grows up; nonetheless, she always feels an absence in her life that she cannot explain.
“A feeling … that there was in her life the absence of something, or someone fundamental to her existence. Sometimes it was vague, like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled. Other times it felt so clear, this absence, so intimately close it made her heart lurch.”
Abdullah, however, is old enough to recall their separation in painful detail, and it is something that marks him for the rest of life. When Pari, in old age, is finally told of Abdullah’s existence, she sets out to find him. Ultimately, there is little joy to be found in their reunion; rather the discovery that time wasted is a tragedy. This is made even more powerful by the fact that Abdullah doesn’t remember Pari at all, as he has developed Alzheimer’s. Hosseini illustrates their unfulfilled relationship through a poignant metaphor of a bridge that is never quite completed: “It ends midway across the river. Like it reached, tried to reunite with, the other side and fell short.”
Another major thread that runs through this book is the conflict between the true reality of things and what certain characters may perceive as reality. One of the more succinct yet very striking narratives is that of Adel, a young boy who knows no differently but to set his father up as a war hero, a saint of the local community, a man who generously helps people to settle their finances. However, Adel is protected from the truth; there are no newspapers in his home that could direct him to the fact that his father is a war criminal. Adel is never allowed to visit the fields his father owns, where he profits from producing opium.
It is only through meeting a local boy, Gholam, that he gets his first glimpse of the truth: Gholam claims that Adel’s father destroyed the homes of what had previously been a whole village (including Gholam’s grandfather’s home). Those returning after having fled the turmoil of war-torn Afghanistan found their homes demolished and instead replaced by the monstrous mansion that Adel’s father inhabits. As Gholam puts it: “imagine how my family felt, coming all the way from Pakistan, only to get off the bus and find this thing on our land.”
There are many other characters who make compromises in this novel; another is Idris. He visits post-war Afghanistan for a brief time before returning to his home in the US. He is deeply disturbed by what has become of Afghanistan (as he puts it, Kabul is “a thousand tragedies per square mile”).
Whilst in Afghanistan, he fosters an apparently life-changing relationship with a young girl he meets in hospital, Roshi, the victim of a horrific attack. He makes a supposedly heartfelt and meaningful promise to help her when he returns to the US. However, it is startling just how quickly he forgets his promise when he is sucked back into his consumer-driven existence in the West. This was perhaps one of the most heartbreaking stories of the book.
“In the last month, Roshi has become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection has frayed. The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital, so urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its power.”
Interestingly though, the tragedy of war-torn, instable Afghanistan only appears in the background throughout And the Mountains Echoed. Rather than honing in on the victims of war, Hosseini casts much wider. The socio-political state of Afghanistan only appears in the periphery. On the whole, Hosseini is more interested in human tragedies that may have little to do with war.
Two of his characters that suffer the most, both physically and emotionally, are vulnerable girls – Thalia and Roshi. These girls are victims of senseless, terrible acts of violence that are inflicted, directly in the case of Roshi, and indirectly, through carelessness in the case of Thalia, by male family members, and are nothing to do with the war. Their lives are both blighted by the terrible facial disfigurements they receive. This seems to confirm to me that a major concern of Hosseini’s is the plight specifically of the women of Afghanistan, which he really honed in on with his prior offering, A Thousand Splendid Suns.
And the Mountains Echoed is beautifully written throughout, with a pervading sadness and sense of how our lives can be changed irreparably through a single event. It hones in on how our existences can be both compromised and wasted. This is an epic and compelling novel that I believe stands in equal stead to A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner.
“He would not love his father again as he had before … he would learn to love him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business … what choice was there?”
And the Mountains Echoed was published in May 2013. Buy it at Foyles.