Wednesday, April 30, 2014

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

I don't remember much of The Kite Runner, I knew the story before I read it, and I read it over months of interruptions. I did love A Thousand Splendid Suns and it's vivid in my memory. After borrowing And The Mountains Echoed from my friend, I read some twenty pages before I put it on the shelf, where it then sat waiting for a month. When I picked it up, I reread those twenty pages and was fully sucked into it. I was done by the next afternoon and have been digesting the story ever since. For once, I didn't read the Goodreads or Amazon reviews before writing mine, because they just wouldn't matter. I know people love his two earlier books, but this was the best yet for me. Unlike the other two, And The Mountains Echoes isn't focused on one story and is broad in its scope. 

Hosseini is an adept storyteller and in this book, he's held nothing back, effortlessly shifting points of view and flitting timelines. The book begins with a man telling his children, Pari and Abdullah, a fable. It's about a poor family in a small village, where a devil visits every winter to take away a child. This year, the man gives up his favourite youngest boy to the devil, because sometimes a finger has to be cut to save the hand. But the man can't live without his boy, and he sets off to bring him back. At the devil's castle, he discovers that all the boys that are taken play together in a heavenly garden. The man has to choose - he can bring his kid back to their pathetic life because he misses him, or he could let the boy stay on happily, but forget all about his family.

And then we realize that the man telling the fable, a poor father, is about to do just that. Give away his youngest daughter, sell Pari to a rich family in Kabul, where the kids' uncle works as a chauffeur. Abdullah and Pari, the brother and sister who depend wholly on each other are ripped apart. But this book isn't just about whether they reunite, it's about reconciling with the past and making the best of the present and the future.

“They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.”

It's impossible to say what and whom I liked without giving away spoilers. So let me say the book made me wonder about people's lives, how so much goes on unnoticed behind close doors and smiling faces, how things rarely turn out the way we plan but how that doesn't have to be a bad thing, how we may lose someone along the way, only to grow to depend on someone else, how we find consolation in unexpected places and people, how we forgive our own mistakes so easily, because we know we can't change history, how life just goes on, no matter if we want it to. 

The book is about many big and small stories, threaded together to form an intricate world. Everything mentioned along the way is significant, you never know where the author will take you next. Be it the story of a tree in a village, a box of feathers collected by a little girl, or a slightly charred photograph of a young woman on a beach. From the story of a chauffeur in Kabul who loves his mistress, you go back into the past to the girl who let envy ruin her sister's life and then you're led forward to an Afghan hotel in America run by man whose daughter, Pari, has been named after the sister he'd lost all those years ago.

Here are some wonderful passages I bookmarked and why I liked them.

(The chauffeur Nabi on his mistress, the poet Nila Wahdati, after she's visited his village. This reminded me of Wordsworth, how poetry is supposedly about the humble and rustic life, written in the real language of men and how wrong it is when put into perspective.)

That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in the village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister's misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed. 

(Referring to the near murder of a little girl by her uncle, after he slaughtered her family. Idris's awkward courtesy was disturbingly easy to relate to, in contrast to the show of airs that his cousin Timur put on, of concern and philanthropy. When it came to actually doing good, Timur's falsities bore better results than Idris's hypocritical importance on good intentions. It hurts me to think of myself the only-opinions-haver. I'd be easily sucked back into my own life; it's better to be someone who may not care but does help, anyway.)

Even if he could talk, which he cannot at the moment, Idris wouldn't know the proper thing to say. He might have said something, some offering of impotent outrage, if this had been the work of the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or some megalomaniacal Mujahideen commander. But this cannot be blamed on Hekmatyar, or Mullah Omar, or Bin Laden, or Bush and his War on Terror. The ordinary, utterly mundane reason behind the massacre makes it somehow more terrible, far more depressing. The word senseless springs to mind, and Idris thwarts it. It's what people always say. A senseless act of violence. A senseless murder. As if you could commit sensible murder. 

(Nila Wahdati, poet, in an interview, on the daughter no one knows she'd adopted, Pari. This made me think of all those poor, hard, lined faces people keep taking photographs of in the name of beauty. As if you could know what goes on behind those eyes. As if all the romantic fancies about hardship and simplistic beauty could match either the terror or the happiness of someone else's life. I takes a lot more than a picture to know the truth about a person, I think.)

I didn't want her turned, against both her will and nature, into one of those diligent, sad women who are bent on a lifelong course of quiet servitude, forever in fear of showing, saying or doing the wrong thing. Women who are admired by some in the West - here in France, for instance - turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by those who couldn't bear even one day of walking in their shoes. Women who see their desires doused and their dreams renounced, and yet - and this is the worst of it, Monsieur Boustouler - if you meet them, they smile and pretend they have no misgivings at all. As though they lead enviable lives. But you look closely and you see the helpless look, the desperation, and how it belies all their show of good humour. It is quite pathetic.

(Markos, the plastic surgeon from Greece now living in the Wahdati's old house. I would have gladly had the book end right here, but the actual ending, some fifty pages down the line, is surprisingly touching too.)

If I've learnt anything in Kabul, it's that human behavior is messy and unpredictable and unconcerned with convenient symmetries. But I find comfort in it, in the idea of a pattern, or a narrative of my life taking shape, like a photograph in a darkroom, a story that slowly emerges and affirms the good I have always wanted to see in myself. It sustains me, this story.

I often say that some books are worth trudging through to the end because the final showdown is worth the few slow parts in the middle. In case of this book, if it doesn't grip you by the fifth chapter, it probably won't till the finish. But it's worth a try, definitely. I highly recommend this read to anyone who likes detailed, emotional, generation-spanning stories. 

12 comments:

AmitAag said...

Great review!
I, an ardent Hosseini fan, somehow found this one slow and ponderous...

Priya said...

AmitAag - Thanks! It's funny, you're right, this is slower paced than the earlier two; but that may be exactly why I liked it. For being so meandering. :)

honeyimreading said...

I have the Kite Runner on my list for this, but I've been hearing so many good things about this book I now wonder which one I should read first.

Priya said...

honeyimreading - Like I said, I don't remember The Kite Runner well. And this one is fabulous. So I'd recommend this, but really, all his books are worth the time. :)

Pooja Wanpal said...

I just got this book two hours ago from my library. :D That was a great review, and now I'm looking forward to reading it.

Delia D said...

I loved Hosseini's previous books and this one is on my list. I didn't know anything about the story but your review sounds lovely and made me want to read the book even more.

Priya said...

Pooja - Coincidence :) I'm sure you'll like it.

Delia - If you like the other books, you must know how good his books end up being. Hope you get around to reading this!

Kavya Venkatesh said...

I read this book few days back and i din't put it down till the end. Your review is just too good. I Hope to write such reviews in my Blog too. :) You've inspired me..!! Thanks a lot.

Priya said...

Thanks Kavya. I agree, the book is unputdownable. :D

nishitak said...

I read this book couple of months ago, and finished it almost at a stretch. It gripped from the word go. I loved the writing and how well he expresses the feelings of so many characters. I didn't expect to love the book as much as I did.

Priya said...

Nishita - Exactly, there are so many characters, but they all manage to have their own voice. Definitely exceeded my expectations too. :)

Micaella Lopez said...

This book portrays different character's lives through their deaths and children. It offers us insight into the bonds of family, connections which continue through the passage of time, including war and struggle for love, independence, and to rid oneself of poverty. Highly recommended.

Mica
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