Long Engagement

Resurrecting Afghanistan: Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And the Mountains Echoed’

How do you make Americans care about the people of Afghanistan on a more human level? Rafia Zakaria salutes a novel that does just that.

Emilio Morenatti/AP

Can literature undo what war has done? If this is the question Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini asked himself in writing his latest book And the Mountains Echoed, then even the formidable accomplishment of two best sellers must have provided little solace. Afghanistan lies blistered and bruised by war, by the ravages of local destruction and international meddling, riven by the dependencies of foreign aid-fuelled micro-economies and the alienation of widely scattered diasporas.

At the same time, without resurrecting the Afghanistan that was, it is not possible to see the true dimensions of the tragedy of what Afghanistan is today. It is that forgotten Afghanistan, buried under layers of war, the Soviet invasion, the Taliban incursion, and the American intrusion, that Hosseini unearths. The story begins in the 1950s, in a fictional village called Shadbagh, a Farsi word meaning “the happy garden.” The first of the story’s many narrators is a little boy named Abdullah, whose mother died while giving birth to his younger sister Pari. Abdullah dotes on Pari, his only full sibling, and through his eyes we see how even the wants and weariness of a meager childhood do not erase its simple and pure joys. Abdullah’s life is ravaged by grief a second time, when three years after his mother’s death, their father Saboor gives away the little Pari to be adopted by a wealthy, childless woman in Kabul. Nabi, the step-uncle of little Abdullah, a chauffeur in Kabul, is the intermediary through which this act of estrangement, so central to the tale, is accomplished.

As in the The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, the story’s narrative shifts continually. Begun by Abdullah, it moves to Nabi and through the passage of time to Pari and others, as those young at the novel’s beginning drift into adulthood and, like the reader, assess, the legacies of the past through the eyes of their present. In addition to giving the story a depth of dimension, the shifting narrative enables a literary archaeology that is only partly fictional. The Afghanistan of the ’50s, when gardens bloomed and walks could be taken on city streets and women wore what they wished, becomes, through Hosseini’s evocations, real and relevant. It is against their wholeness that the incomplete impressions of the recent past or present are juxtaposed. Late in the book, the aid workers that come to rent the old Kabul house where Pari was bought as a child see it as a momentary place to stay while engaged in their task of helping Afghanistan. The reader, however, is privy to the longer story of the house, of the love between Nabi and the now dead Mr.Wahdati, and the connection between him and Pari, the daughter Mrs.Wahdati has raised as her own.

If a literary excavation is one of Hosseini’s accomplishments, another is the exploration of the theme of dependence and the concomitant burdens of guilt and gratitude, imposed on those that need help and those that can provide it. Buried beneath the sullen reticence of Parwana, Abdullah and Pari’s stepmother, we find a poignant tale of a plain twin whose single act of vengeance, of pushing her pretty sister off a swing results in a lifelong moral burden. The sister, who was to be married to a man both sisters love, becomes an invalid for life, and both serve the sentence, the healthy one tending to the other and wrecked within by the knowledge that she was the cause of their collective misfortune. The theme of dependence returns again in the story of Nabi, the driver who enables little Pari’s adoption, when a stroke leaves his boss paralyzed and abandoned by a wife fleeing a loveless marriage. In a tender rendition, Hosseini describes the humility with which Nabi bestows his care, digging out all the time the moral conundrums of both the helper and the helped.

The Afghan woman has been central to the American encounter with Afghanistan, and she is also prominent in And the Mountains Echoed. Here again Hosseini uses the details of emotional lives to humanize figures that have been hollowed by the varied agendas of warfare. Is the quintessential Afghan woman Nila, the dramatic Kabul socialite turned Parisian poetess? Or is she the guilt wracked Parwana, who feels condemned to a life of grief for a single moment of jealousy? Or is she the war-maimed Roshnai, whose story is written into an archetypal tale of woe for mass consumption by American readers, where the guilt of the Afghan character melts indelibly with the guilt of the Western reader, accomplishing with grace the revelation of the complicated relationship between the two?

In the human relationships that populate Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed lie the vexing questions of the destiny of the two nations. In the twilight of occupation, what exactly does the robust United States owe Afghanistan, what duties are imposed by the familiarities of long associations, and what compromises are implied by the complications of complex alliances? Wrought with mastery, And the Mountains Echoed is not just a well spun tale, but an accomplishment of the most elusive of literary challenges—the humanization of a war ravaged population in the eyes of the very people complicit in their ruin.