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Measuring the repercussions

Surfeit of characters and sub-plots detracts from tale of Afghanistan's ordeal, writes Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 4:55pm

Khaled Hosseini's debut novel, The Kite Runner, set in his native Afghanistan against the backdrop of its tumultuous 20th century history, was wildly successful. Hosseini, who has lived in the United States since he was 15, published the novel two years after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 by the US and its allies. A moving portrait of friendship, fidelity, faith and fundamentalism, it shone a spotlight on the country and its people, extricating them from both the obfuscating shroud of the Taliban and the narrow lens of the occupying force.

He followed it with A Thousand Splendid Suns, in which he trained his humanistic eye on two Afghan women, tracing their lives across five decades from the 1960s, the violent upheavals of the nation intruding upon and influencing them in myriad ways. And the Mountains Echoed, his third novel, continues to build on the themes of love and exile of his two previous books.

The book's epigram, a verse by the 13th-century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi, is revelatory: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there." The story opens with Saboor, a poor peasant, telling a bedtime story to his two children, 10-year-old Abdullah and three-year-old Pari: a div, a monster who comes down from his mountain retreat to steal children, visits Baba Ayub's village, taps on his hut and waits for the farmer to offer him a child. If he fails to make a voluntary offering, the div will take all the children.

A night of silent weeping and furious thinking later, Ayub is no closer to a decision. As the rays of the sun look set to emerge from behind the mountains, the father gathers several stones, inscribes the name of a child on each, tosses them into a bag and asks his wife to pick one. When she refuses, Ayub must accomplish the dreaded task. He picks a stone and ends up forfeiting his youngest and favourite son to the div.

This story within a story telegraphs the fate that will soon befall Saboor and his children. From his village of Shadbagh, Saboor sets off with his daughter, pulling her in a red wagon, towards Kabul where he has been promised a job. But Abdullah and Pari are inseparable, the brother having raised his little sister after their mother died in childbirth.

A patient reading yields all answers and yet leaves one yearning for more

Despite a thrashing, Saboor cannot deter the boy, who joins them on the journey. In Kabul, a city that mesmerises them with traffic lights and fancy cars, their uncle Nabi escorts them to the palatial household where he works as a cook and chauffeur and where, ostensibly, Saboor will find work.

Inside the wealthy house, Abdullah secures Pari in his lap, unsure of the sumptuousness of his surroundings and their meagre presence within it. He senses the uptightness of Nabi's employer, Mr Wahdati, and the brittle cheerfulness of Mrs Wahdati, who takes an extraordinary interest in Pari. Meanwhile, his father sits at the edge of the sofa with gold tassels, coiled tight as a spring.

Abdullah has an intense desire to head back home with father and Pari, but Mrs Wahdati insists on taking the children to the bazaar. "Abdullah looked at her and sensed something alarming in the woman, beneath the make-up and the perfume and the appeals for sympathy, something deeply splintered."

In the end, Abdullah returns home with his father, the childless Mrs Wahdati and the poor peasant Saboor having struck a deal which benefited them both. But a gain can have a long tail and it is the sting in that tail that preoccupies Hosseini as the narrative jumps from 1952 to 2003, a shelled-out Kabul playing host to US marines, foreign-aid workers and returning Afghan-Americans.

What does an Afghan owe to the country that he left to escape violence? Should Afghan-Americans feel guilty over their material possessions, one of which could fund a child's hospitalisation expense in Afghanistan today? Can a person ever truly cut off his roots or will they reach out in time and space and draw him back like a homing pigeon to its dovecote?

Hosseini, a successful physician in California and a UN envoy, runs a foundation to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. His travels have brought him into frequent contact with refugees and resettlers, and his writing consistently engages with questions of homeland and exile, the points of departure and arrival and how they influence multiple interconnected lives. Not surprisingly then, the narrative of And the Mountains Echoed zigzags across timelines and cities - Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, hovering on a character in a particular time and space before trailing off to the next. This scaffolding lends the book a disconnected air, as if the writer was stringing several stories together, and leaves the reader disoriented at times, or dissatisfied at others.

Kabul, 2003, finds uncle Nabi an old man in legal possession of the Wahdati mansion, and he updates us on his life and the intervening passage of time through the tricky device of a letter. The lyrical writing and the intriguing story of Nabi's days spent in the service of Mr Wahdati do not make up for the rushed feel of the narrative. Things get complicated when several characters show up in the present, who have a peripheral connection with the primary characters of yore, and Hosseini feels compelled to share their back stories with us.

So what happened to Pari, who was plucked from the bosom of her brother by the needy Mrs Wahdati? And why was Nila Wahdati, glamorous poetess, wealthy heiress, half-French and preternaturally beautiful, bent on a path of self-destruction? Did Abdullah, the brother who kept Pari's memory alive by collecting bird feathers that she cherished and safekeeping them in a tin can, manage to catch up with his long-lost sister?

A patient reading yields all answers and yet leaves one yearning for more. The narrative would have benefited if Hosseini had cut through the multiple characters and pared things to the lives of Abdullah, Pari, the Wahdatis and Nabi.

One particular chapter, or story - for it seems to stand entirely on its own - is about a pair of Afghan-American cousins returning to Kabul to reclaim their ancestral property and getting embroiled in the life of a wounded girl. It feels forced, as if the writer was guilt-tripped into adding it.

A character in the book says: "A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later". Hosseini is a delightful storyteller who leaves the reader with an equal measure of sighs and smiles. And the Mountains Echoed is a worthwhile journey - I only wish Hosseini had taken fewer stops en route.

thereview@scmp.com

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