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.

1 comment:

Rahul said...

Yet another masterpiece by Khalid.. one of my fav writers... i was waiting for this book since months and had preordered it. HAve already read his "A thousand splendid suns' and 'Kite runner'.. This is another tale of Afghanistan written in a flawless way as always and a wonderful read indeed.

Loved it.. waiting for Khalid's new releases to come..

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