And the Mountains Echoed

February 11th, 2014

My wife has suddenly turned into a bookworm – this is a most interesting development – and as part of this sudden transformation, she bought And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, giving it to me to read first. And read it I did. It’s one of those mesmerising books that you can’t put down until you’re in a zombie-like trance from a lack of sleep. It’s subtly seductive, gently wrapping its story around you until you feel an intimate part of it. The back cover quotes Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times thusly:

[Hosseini’s] most assured and emotionally gripping story yet…]

Except it’s not a story, or at least, it’s not one story. It’s several stories of a diverse set of characters from and in Afghanistan, California, France, and Greece, some via Pakistan. Their stories intertwine to weave a beautiful tapestry. A terrible tapestry.

This isn’t really a story or stories so much as a description of all the myriad ways we hurt each other, especially those closest to us, whether through resentment at being overshadowed by a more beautiful, talented or extroverted sibling, cousin or parent, the shame of or disappointment in a child who doesn’t measure up to the parent’s wishes, the frustration and slowly building rage at constantly cleaning up and cleaning up after a melodramatic and self-absorbed family member bent on self destruction, impotent rage at poverty and the shame and self-loathing for the actions and situations it forces one into, the suffering and disappointment we cause others through our own inability to rise above our circumstances. It describes the pain inflicted on us not just by our own actions or inactions or those of our closest loved ones, but by the simple passage of time itself, the unfolding of life as it happens, events of which we, not even Vladimir Putin, have even the slightest semblance of control, pain inflicted by simple, cold, inevitability.

This is not a story or stories, this is a paean, a love song to life in all its glorious filth, a song which holds out the promise of a possibility of some small measure of redemption, though never the redemption we desire. A redemption perhaps best analogised by Hosseini in his description of the Pont Saint-Bénezet:

It’s a half bridge, really, as only four of its original arches remain. It ends midway across the river. Like it reached, tried to reunite with, the other side and fell short.

And that’s how it is for the most successful characters in this novel – without giving away too much (I hope), one fairy, blown away by the wind, returns too late to find what she craved for so long. A younger fairy discovers she was born too late for what she thought she desired. But together they find they can make some measure of redemption, no matter how incomplete, but something with a future.

The book has its imperfections, I hasten to add. I found the dialogue of the characters in Paris and Tinos a touch too American in flavour. And riding elephants in Kenya? I’ve never heard of African elephants being domesticated. Could Asian elephants have been taken to Kenya during colonial days? I suppose. But that was jarring. Perhaps I’m being obtuse and it was meant to be jarring, to highlight the superficiality of the character that made that claim. I don’t know, but it broke the spell woven by the book, if only, mercifully, for a split second.

But what’s so powerful is the style of narration. For all the brutality in the book – and given how much of it is set in Afghanistan, or how many of the characters are at most one step removed from Afghanistan, there’s plenty of scope for brutality – the brutality is purely domestic in nature and is described in such a calm, relaxed, matter of fact way that you won’t feel that superficial moral outrage you feel whenever you watch the news on TV or pick up a newspaper. What you feel is deeper, in your marrow, a warm, almost comforting ache, a horror most familiar.

I very much recommend this book, it is superbly structured and brilliantly written. But beware, those of a weepy persuasion will need a large supply of tissues as they read.

*As the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books, New York, 2013.

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