18 June 2013

And the Mountains Echoed


This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books

One tends to shudder when words like ambitious, sweeping, or epic are used to describe a book. But Khaled Hosseini’s new novel, And the Mountains Echoed, is legitimately all of those things, springing from the rubble of a little folktale about separation into the tangled history of a clutch of loosely connected lives. Its many splintered tales come together like an imperfect mosaic; when the chapters are pieced together, the result is a complex family saga spanning over almost a hundred years. What adds to the book’s complexity is that it is delivered without linearity or chronology, reflecting the fractured lives of its characters.

Mountains
has many of the strengths that made The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns such runaway successes. But the absence of sentimentality in the new novel is also a very real departure from Hosseini’s earlier style. His writing has never been extravagant, but has always had a prickling sense of emotional idealism, a way of tugging at heartstrings with easy answers and uplifting doses of human kindness. In Mountains, though, he shows extraordinary restraint when drawing on his characters’ feelings.

Reminiscent of books like Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red for its use of multiple perspectives and Kamila Shamsie’s Broken Shadows for the range it traverses, Mountains is a bigger project than Hosseini’s first two books. It staggers, sometimes, under the weight of the gamut of its explorations, but has an unassuming way of creeping back into litheness. The book’s simple uncomplicated prose, free of the onerous clangs of affectation, is never startlingly beautiful or poetic. But it’s a fine read, finer still for its brokenness.

At the center of the tale is a chauffeur, Nabi, who swings the entire book into action. Knotted into his miscalculations are Pari and Abdullah, his sister’s step-children. As the right-hand-man of a rich Kabul artist, Nabi finds himself falling uncontrollably in love with Nila Wahdati, the young wife of his employer. Nila cannot have children and leads a tormented existence. And thus it is that a four-year-old Pari ends up with Nila, torn from her childhood home and her family. But this is only the starting point of Mountains.

The novel then jumps several years forward to describe the terrifying offshoots of Nabi’s actions, travelling to France, Greece, and the United States. The story is dotted in seemingly minor details within the travails of an eclectic set of characters, particularly Markos, a Greek plastic surgeon who lives as Nabi’s guest, and Idris, a former neighbour of the Wahdatis. It is is entirely to Hosseini’s credit that the book never feels manipulative despite the plot’s contrivances. The final leg of the book comes full circle in an oddly satisfactory way without actually tying up all the loose threads.

In The Kite Runner, Hosseini created a protagonist who was despicable and somehow sympathetic. Hosseini returns to cowardice and betrayal in Mountains with Idris in the book’s most powerful chapter. As Idris and his cousin Timur return to Kabul to look into a property dispute, they encounter a damaged young girl called Roshi who moves Idris powerfully. It is a heartbreaking narrative of the difficulty of being good, of the finest intentions withering into wearisome inconveniences, and of the alarming ways in which we make allowances for selfishness. Back home in California, Idris is filled with a self-pitying brand of contrition at the wealth that he is now surrounded with, “a case of survivor’s guilt” as his wife calls it. It is a temporary sensation, and it is agonising and familiar to watch it wash away from his conscience without fuss or feeling as Idris re-engages with the comforts of the new world. It is a testament to the short-lived nature of compassion, these moments of introspection that feel life-altering but are unlikely to actually bring about change:

“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. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized him for what it really was, an illusion, a mirage. He had fallen under the influence of something like a drug. The distance between him and the girl feels vast now. It feels infinite, insurmountable, and his promise to her misguided, a reckless mistake, a terrible misreading of the measures of his own powers and will and character.”

If in The Kite Runner and Suns, goodness and badness could be marked as easily as in a Venn diagram, with only a small intersection to conjoin them, in Mountains, Hosseini creates robust, multidimensional characters like Nila and Idris who grope through life and face the repercussions of their messiest decisions. In fact, the weakest link in the book is also the only chapter that devolves ponderously into a morality tale, tiresomely told from the perspective of the young son of an Afghan warlord. Everywhere else, the book’s greatest strength is its ethical ambiguity.

03 June 2013

The Perfect Gentleman

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Imran Ahmad is born in Karachi in 1962 and moves with his family to England the following year. Instead of fine jobs and a comfortable existence, though, the Ahmad family faces systematic discrimination at every level in England at a time before affirmative action crept into business practices. Things slowly begin to look up as they find some semblance of economic stability in employment and in education. The Perfect Gentleman is a self-styled memoir that traces the first twenty-five years of Imran Ahmad’s journey (followed by a brief overview of his later years) from a callow boyhood in London to a somewhat self-indulgent youth in Scotland.

This is an articulately rendered book that records some version of the immigrant dream. Imran Ahmad as a young man desperately seeks cultural integration. His many encounters with prejudice and racial profiling and his often phlegmatic responses to them speak desperately of a desire to assimilate in the most unobtrusive way possible. The book chronicles his pursuit of an identity that connects him to Islam without disconnecting him from the perceived liberties of a Western upbringing.

What the pursuit comes down to, largely, is the longing for a beautiful girlfriend and a beautiful car: in essence, material success and cultural acceptance that’s delivered James Bond style (minus the vodka martinis). The Perfect Gentleman is engaging in parts, but quickly gets repetitive. Ahmad’s college years can be described thus: he buys a car, falls in love, sells the car, falls in love, buys another car, falls in love, has car trouble, fixes car trouble, falls in love, has more car trouble, fixes it again, falls in love, sells the car, buys a third car, falls in love. Women and cars appear like a cavalcade of idealistic aspiration throughout the book.

The unaffected earnestness with which the information is relayed is part of the book’s charm and profound, if slapdash, sense of honesty: “I have always found American girls in general to be very attractive and intriguing (although Charlie’s Angels may have set my expectations rather high). I am willing to accept their broad collection of accents as ‘exotic,’ whereas I struggle to be attracted by the wide range of regional accents on offer in Britain. The great thing about American girls is that they are strangers in a strange land; they don’t know anyone to begin with, so it is relatively easy to engage them in conversation and mention a forthcoming drive in the countryside. ‘Would you like to come?’”

The book does also deal, in some detail, with the author’s theological transactions. Ahmad makes an unapologetic case for Islam, even as he struggles to make religious sense of his own life. “This is all a lot of superstition and prejudice and stupidity that has wrapped itself around Islam like a cancer. I feel very uncomfortable sitting here, listening to this nonsense. In another sermon, he expounds that men and women should not mix socially, and he berates those present here today (and they know who they are!) who have been mixing with girls, having coffee with them, and so on. I feel very uncomfortable. I have coffee with girls all the time. In fact, I’d have more coffee with more girls if only more girls would agree to have coffee with me.”

The cloying naivety is a function of the self-deprecating style of humour that Ahmad employs throughout the book. The rhetorical device is amusing enough in parts, but not “laugh-out-loud funny” as the blurb promises. What’s tiresome, though, is that no matter how lightly one takes Ahmad’s generally frothy and listless approach to the large decisions that we as individuals find ourselves making in the complex climb into adulthood, the preoccupation with appearances simply never lets up. One longs to think of the author as a person with some depth, but when he casually decides to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry simply because he hopes that a girl that he is in love with will be at the same university, or when he chooses a career for himself because brochures from the company show men and women in posh suits, or, in the final leg of the book, decides upon marriage because his future father-in-law is wealthy and will buy him a car, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him.

Less a memoir than a randomly assimilated series of mostly superficial memories, The Perfect Gentleman treads only ankle-deep in the issues it could so easily have waded into. Its great triumph, though, is in establishing that Imran Ahmad is an ordinary soul, that he, despite feeling so markedly different in his early years, is plagued by the same fears and doubts and insecurities as any young man. It’s a feel-good sort of tale that would make for a great audio book. It demands bouts of attention and carries on in the way of a good-hearted passenger seat occupant who has the inclination to wryly dissect a life not fully lived, but is still well worth living.