And the Mountains Echoed

Each of Khaled Hosseini’s three novels — The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and his newest, And the Mountains Echoed — begins with a betrayal and then gradually finds its way toward an unexpected redemption. Each includes within its cast of characters at least one orphaned or abandoned child. In all three books, the author exhibits an unabashed didacticism, using plainspoken family dramas to convey the complex recent history and culture of Afghanistan to multitudes of readers in America and around the world. (To date, more than 10 million copies of Hosseini’s books have been sold in the U.S. alone.) Yet in each of the books the author’s allegiance is above all to the story, from which he has stripped away most stylistic enhancements, reducing his tale to its emotional essence. To Hosseini’s detractors, his narrative purity comes off as trite earnestness. To his legions of fans it’s a virtue, a hallmark of credibility and consistency.

For all these similarities among Hosseini’s novels, it’s their differences that are more interesting and instructive. By paying attention to  those differences, which are chiefly structural, one can follow the evolution of Hosseini’s refinement as a storyteller. The Kite Runner traced a more or less straightforward line from the narrator’s childhood in 1960s-’70s Kabul to his adult life in Northern California around the turn of the millennium. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, instead of telling a single story from a single point of view, Hosseini abruptly switched characters partway through the novel and started again, ultimately weaving both halves of the narrative together. It was a risk, but it worked: the fracturing of the story mirrored the fracturing of Afghanistan’s social structure during three decades of violent instability, from the Soviet invasion beginning in December 1979 through a prolonged civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and American military involvement after September 11, 2001.

Hosseini’s third book is even more structurally sophisticated. “You want a story and I will tell you one,” it begins, but in fact And the Mountains Echoed contains many stories, starting over not just once but many times, as it ranges capriciously through varying points of view and time periods and far-flung locations.

Once again Hosseini begins, classically, with a simple family tale. In 1952, in a remote Afghan village called Shadbagh, a penniless day laborer is compelled to sell his three-year-old daughter to a wealthy childless couple in Kabul in order to sustain his wife and remaining children. The little daughter, named Pari, has a deep mutual bond with her ten-year-old brother, Abdullah, who until now has been her main caregiver. The grief and guilt that this forced separation inflicts on all the family members will flare up periodically throughout their lives. It will spread over continents, too, since Pari will eventually spend most of her life in France, and Abdullah will emigrate to America as an adult, in 1982.

Hosseini’s intention is to show how stubbornly a homeland manages to cling to a person, in strange and diluted ways, even after years of dispersion and assimilation. Thus we note that Pari, who has lived in Paris since her adoptive mother moved her there from Kabul when she was six, has twinges of recovered memory of Shadbagh and her unmentioned birth family, “like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled.” And we see Abdullah, transplanted to the San Francisco Bay Area, educating his American daughter with lessons in Farsi and the Koran and slaving away in his restaurant, Abe’s Kabob House, with its tourist-friendly menu of “Caravan Kabob, Khyber Pass Pilaf, Silk Route Chicken,” and — notes his sharp-eyed daughter — “the badly framed poster of the Afghan girl from National Geographic, the one with the eyes — like they had passed an ordinance that every single Afghan restaurant had to have her eyes staring back from the wall.”

It’s not only these central characters who feel the presence of their origins as if they were gingerly touching an old wound. There is Idris Bashiri, Abdullah’s Bay Area doctor, who wrestles with his guilt as a privileged Westernized Afghan when he travels to his hometown of Kabul and sees the suffering of a population ravaged by ongoing privation and war. There is Markos Varvaris, a plastic surgeon and relief worker in Kabul who grew up on the Greek island of Tinos, attempting to bury the pain of his difficult childhood by aiding the disadvantaged in hotspots around the world. And there is Gholam, a thirteen-year-old Afghan boy made cynical by years of displacement in a refugee camp in Pakistan, who returns to his village with his family to find that their land has been stolen by a drug warlord.          

These are all separate stories, yet Hosseini takes care to connect each of them, in roundabout ways, to the central narrative of Pari and Abdullah’s ruptured family. By tracing the paths of many characters from their birthplaces to various diasporas, he has expanded his familiar themes of betrayal and redemption into a narrative edifice that is much grander than the plainer architecture of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. And he has accomplished this without losing the homespun emotional forcefulness that distinguished those earlier novels. An author with a less urgent calling might be willing merely to manage the brand of his or her success, recycling the same magic formulas that initially captivated audiences. Not so for Hosseini, a popular-fiction writer of the highest caliber whose talent is as agile and wide-ranging as his new novel itself.