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Friday, June 21, 2013

Khaled Hosseini's third

There are very few living authors about whom I’d say to someone who is serious about books ‘Don’t die before you have read him’. And I happen to know something about books. Khaled Hosseini is one of that elite.

He writes about love and hate, pain and longing, folly and illusion and evil and sin and remorse and redemption and finding out through long, diverse and intense experience who we are, what we were born for, how to make the best of our human condition against the most unfair and unmanageable odds, make peace with ourselves and be glad or at least quietly content when our number is up. Yes, the stuff of the finest works through the ages in every land…old hat. Only, some people do it their own way and very much better than others, leaving permanent footprints on the sands of time, making you thankful that they wrote and you read them.

He knows how to make pain, gut-wrenching pain, more beautiful and beguiling and fulfilling than even the sweetest pleasure. In this mind-numbed, crudely hedonistic age he defies your expectations of gooey happy endings and dares you not to read him. You go back to him even though you know you can’t take it any more. After The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I had sworn to myself I shall never read a Hosseini again. His new book has come out last month – five years after the previous one – and when Abhirup brought it along, it took me half a minute to forget my resolve: I finished the first hundred pages in a breathless hour-long rush, and I knew I was hooked, and had to finish the book no matter what.  

This book too, originates in Afghanistan; indeed most of it dwells on present-day, war-torn, poverty-ravaged, religion-and-drug-crazed Afghanistan, but it covers a much longer time span than the previous ones, travels all over the world from Greek islands to Paris to Spain to Californian suburbs and even fleetingly to India, and deals simultaneously with a much greater number and variety of characters, most of whom interweave and interact with one another in one way or the other, in the best tradition of grand narratives of yesteryear. There are poor marginal farmers quietly bleeding their lives away in back-breaking labour to keep their families alive and there are corrupt, violent warlords wearing masks before their childen that ultimately drop off, there are beautiful, dissolute, frustrated poets and math PhDs trying to understand them as parents and human beings as they themelves raise families and grow old; there are savaged, ugly but gifted women trying to live decently with a purpose and little boys growing into doctors trying to respect them and love them, there are homosexual masters who are nice but frustrated people and lovelorn servants who wish they knew with their dying breath they had done the right thing; there are ‘good’ men who eventually have to admit to themselves they are lesser human beings than their ‘bad’ siblings, there are faithful daughters desperately trying to find out what is missing from their lives and stern mothers who shame their grown up sons in the dusk of their lives by praising them, there are men and women and children suffering in exile and making do and changing and yet remaining unchanged… but always, also in the grand tradition, everything revolves over and around one basic template: two human beings who loved each other with an uncommon love, cruelly separated in childhood, longing and forgetting and remembering and searching all their lives for each other, and finding each other and bliss at last, more than half a century later, not in a way that makes for fairy tales but the sort that brings a wrenching cry from the heart – oh Allah, who is all merciful, it is not for us to judge, but could it not have been done in a kinder, nicer way? At the same time you are richer and deeply thankful for the experience: a master spirit has shown you what it means to be human.

The quote before the story begins is from Jelaluddin Rumi: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there’. Indeed, the book reconfirms the truth of the French proverb, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner… and reminds us of Jesus’ admonition ‘Judge not, so thou shalt not be judged’. The best writers can do it far more persuasively than your run of the mill priest. And the book ends with a cathartic vision that, if you are capable of appreciating it, you will find it hard to forget.

Hosseini has single-handedly put Afghanistan on the world’s literary map: that is just one of his achievements. He reminded me once again why I read math and science and economics but chose to live by teaching literature, and also why a man may own all the baubles of this world but will die pitiably deprived and poor if he has not read a few good books of this sort. Also, how hard it is to be both a parent and a child. And what love and loving means. Those who know me will understand how hard it is for me to call someone my teacher: Hosseini has earned his place on the pedestal. I wonder what an incredible husband and father he must be. And he is the rare kind of man that I envy in this world – a man who has managed to do well by writing books that can find permanent places on the shelves of the most civilized among us. May God grant him a long and happy life devoted to writing. Visit his website at khaledhosseini.com, and do listen to the video where he talks about his new baby.

Statutory warning: Mutual sibling love of this ethereal quality surviving into adulthood is even rarer in this world than that between a teacher and his student. I should know.

P.S..: The stupidest people write book reviews these days, people who cannot distinguish Chetan Bhagat or E. L. James from Hemingway, Shaw or Shakespeare, and people who basically have nothing to say but are desperate to say it anyway – you can look up a few at goodreads.com  yourself. Talk about chattering apes, and what harm a smattering of education can do…

[And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 402, Indian edition Rs. 599, ISBN 978-9-3829-5100-1]


Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

I have read books like Diary of a Young Girl and All Quiet on the Western Front more than once and I could read them again. And though they are bleak in some sense and do not end well, I see some redemption, somewhere. I didn't find any when I finished The Kite Runner. I have never been so disturbed after reading a book and I had made up my mind that I won't, rather cannot, read his books any more. I haven't read A Thousand Splendid Suns and I wouldn't have thought of trying this one either. I hope I can muster the courage to pick both his second and third books up some day.


Subhadip Dutta said...

Dear Sir,

I have read "The Kite Runner", but never felt that I would not read Mr. Hosseini's books ever again. The man writes about pain and breaks your heart, but will never let you keep the book aside. The way he describes pain and suffering engrosses the serious reader.

In the beginning, even though I felt a very strong contempt for Amir, I could feel my heart becoming much lighter than what it was when I was at the middle of the book. Amir tried the best he could to do some good, though he knew that it would never wash off the darkness from either his life or Hassan's son's life.

Amir was just weak, very weak, throughout his entire life. That he decided to fight against himself and face Assef to save his half brother's son was something that took a lot of effort. He had fought his entire life against himself. It takes a man a lot of effort to realize and accept that he is a coward, and then try to overcome his cowardice. The faint smile in his nephew's face at the end, Amir's running towards the last kite, his saying 'For you, a thousand times over' to Hassan's son, are things after reading which the reader can only forgive Amir! These things try to make the reader smile faintly, but again makes him/her cry, and in the end the reader does both together...

"The Kite Runner" is no doubt very disturbing, but I loved the way the writer has written it. I do not know whether I have a liking for this kind of writing, but I will soon start the book "A Thousand Splendid Suns".


Subhajit said...

Dear Sir,

Just finished the book and I must say even while reading your review I was feeling like re-reading the book yet again.This is the first Hosseini that I read and realised what I missed by not reading his previous works.
Thank you for writing the review.I sincerely request you Sir to enlighten us by posting more such book reviews in future.

Thanking you,

Yours sincerely,
Subhajit Chakraborty

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Three sensible comments in a day on a book review - now that makes me glad! I don't think it has ever happened on this blog before... thank you, all three.

Unknown said...

Dear Sir,

Khaled Hosseini has this wonderful ability to wrench emotions that one does not know one is capable of. How often do we come across in contemporary literature a work that speaks to people all over the world.

Another very interesting aspect of his writing is the role children play in his stories. As you have rightly written, he must indeed have a wonderful understanding of children.

I haven't read my copy of his latest offering yet. I can't because my father is a huge fan of his. And one of the little pleasures of my life is to hear him speak of how much he loved the book, going over different passages, reading them out to my mother, and eventually getting all my younger cousins to read it. I'll happily wait for the copy to come to me till then.

With regards,


Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

I read A Thousand Splendid Suns over three years ago and it left me feeling hollow and bereft. I have been putting off reading Mr. Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner but now I think I will pluck up the courage. Betwixt my first and second reading of this blogpost Sir, I ordered his new book and now hold it in my hands. I am filled with a certain amount of trepidation. I know that I will suffer along with those in the book, yet, I cannot resist the pull after having experienced one of his books and more so because of this blogpost. So thank you Sir, once I am done with the book, I would love to share my thoughts with you :-)


Krishanu Sadhu said...

Sir ,

This comment is unrelated to the book under discussion , but rather the paradigm shift in the way people 'meet' books currently. I would like to share the following article with you :


The article made me feel a bit sad . A book is different from other commodities , it is one of the few things that cannot be judged by its cover .It needs to be experienced , explored . A bookshop exactly allows us to do that. I remember spending numerous happy hours in the old bookstores of College Street , picking up titles. And while sifting through the racks , when I would find a nice book,or something I had been searching for long , I would feel like having discovered a lost treasure ! Can any online store give that kind of joy ? I'm not sure .

So many wonderful things are getting lost as the years roll by . I sincerely hope that the old-fashioned bookstores somehow survive . They deserve that exclusivity .

I would like to learn about your views on this topic.

Regards ,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

So many things are changing, Krishanu, and definitely not all for the better. What can I say here that I haven't said already, and not just once? Technologically super-rich, we have become culturally withered and maimed, and the real tragedy is that most of us, especially the young, don't even have any idea how, so they don't miss what they have lost before they became conscious. I have the entire human population currently below thirty in mind.

Karl Marx spoke passionately about how the capitalistic ethos commodifies and trivializes everything, even human relationships, so why should books be spared? And he wrote a century and a half ago. I wonder what he would have said today if we met.

Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,
Of all your observations in this blogpost, the one that struck the deepest chord with me is that bit about Khaled Hosseini’s works being “in the best tradition of grand narratives of yesteryear.” What I have always liked the most about Hosseini as an author, right from my schooldays when I first read The Kite Runner, is precisely this: that he is old-fashioned in the finest sense of the term. Not for him are the modernist (or would that be post-modernist?) impulse to engage in stream-of-consciousness rambling, use of unreliable narrators, playing around with the meanings and implications of words and phrases, or deliberate fragmentation of the narrative. He is, first and foremost, a storyteller, concerned with the creation of a credible, affecting and understandable fictional world populated with well-defined, relatable characters, whose trials and tribulations make for fascinating drama while also conveying a lesson or two on the ugliness and the beauty of human existence. And it’s all written in the simplest, most forthright of prose. In other words, it’s, as I said, old-fashioned, and that’s a complement. Indeed, while reading And the Mountains Echoed, I kept thinking back to the works of Charles Dickens, especially the ones with multiple narrative strands, such as Bleak House (where the separate storylines involving Esther Summerson’s experiences, the romance between Richard and Ada that’s doomed by the former’s obsession with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, the secret of Lady Dedlock, and the investigations of Inspector Bucket all ultimately interweave and converge) and A Tale of Two Cities (where the strands dealing with Sydney Carton’s redemption, Charles Darnay and Lucy Mannette’s relationship, the lives of the French aristocrats, and those of the French proletariat and revolutionaries, are brought together to create an engaging account of a momentous historical event). Content-wise, Hosseini’s latest isn’t quite the same as the aforementioned works, but stylistically, there are undeniable similarities between it and the Dickensian narratives, as well as with the sprawling Russian classics by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Sholokhov. (Incidentally, one reason why I so love the films of Steven Spielberg is also their laudably old-fashioned style: despite the cutting-edge technology he employs in his films, the storytelling and characterization harkens back to the grand masters of the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as John Ford and David Lean and Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock and William Wyler and Billy Wilder. I guess I am a classicist at heart).

Abhirup said...

What sets this third novel of Hosseini apart is, as you have rightly said, its increased scope. And I am very thankful that Hosseini chose to widen his vistas, because it has given us more memorable characters, more touching moments. Epic writing of this kind is becoming a rarity these days, and I am glad that at least somebody is keeping the art alive. It’s rather tough to choose a favourite storyline from amongst the many that make up the tapestry that is And the Mountains Echoed, but if I have to choose, I would go for Nabi’s reminiscence, and in particular, his account of his relation with his boss, the closeted gay artist Suleiman Wahdati. It’s an incredibly moving and complex bond, one that amounts, especially after Mr. Wahdati suffers a stroke and becomes dependant on Nabi, to a platonic marriage. It reminded me of the relationship between Amir and Hassan in The Kite Runner: like that, this too is a master-servant relation on the surface, but much, much more than that actually. What amazed me even more is Hosseini’s success at providing us with a very believable homosexual character—conflicted, tormented yet likeable and so, so dignified—without using the words “gay”, “homosexual” or even “queer” even once. Things don’t get any more nuanced and sublime than this. And the story of Markos Varvaris, and the way his initial revulsion and fear towards the disfigured Thalia gives way to friendship and closeness is also very well-written. I find echoes of the Mariam-Laila camaraderie from A Thousand Splendid Suns here; there too the two women had similarly progressed from antagonism to understanding.

Abhirup said...

This is not to take anything away from the other chapters, each of which is a beautiful vignette in its own right. It’s just that when given multiple plotlines, some are bound to appeal more than the others, and these two moved me a bit more than the rest.

I am also entirely in agreement with what you said about the novel warning readers not to judge others, unless, at least, you know the full details of where those others are coming from and why they did what they did. Those lines from Jelaluddin Rumi I first read when the film Rockstar used them as a prologue of sorts; while the film itself made little impression, the lines stayed with me, and it is only after reading them again in this novel and reading the book itself that I understand what Rumi meant. On so many occasions in the novel, I came close to judging a character, only to be chastened. I found myself disliking Nabi and Nila Wahdati for separating Abdullah and Pari, only to realize that neither Nabi nor Nila is the villain of the story; both are highly sympathetic characters who had their reasons—ones which certainly cannot be dismissed easily—for their deeds. I thought Timur is really the ‘bad’ sibling and Idris the ‘good’ one, but had to reconsider soon afterwards. I fell for the warlord’s self-promotion of himself as charming and charitable, and was almost unwilling to believe the subsequent revelation about him, though, of course, there was no way I couldn’t. What Parwana did to her sister Masooma left me feeling more than a little repulsive towards the former, but once I tried imagining myself in her shoes, and re-read how she took care of Masooma later, I came to understand, if not condone, her actions. How unwise it is indeed to judge others. That might well be the most important lesson I am taking home from this novel.

As for what you have said in the postscript, I can only sadly concur, and add that things are even worse when it comes to film reviews, for the simple reason that watching films is more widespread an activity than reading books: literally every Tom, Dick and Harry “writes” about films these days, and what they write is either utterly trite or nauseatingly pretentious. Each of them, though, is convinced that he/she is the next Roger Ebert. The best that we can do is ignore these apes and use our own intelligence to draw the final conclusions. In any case, I doubt if the likes of Hosseini are eager for the approval of imbeciles.

Many thanks for this blogpost.

With regards,
Abhirup Mascharak.

Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

I read the article whose link was posted by Krishanu da above. It really saddened me to know about the fate of such a book store and its owner. Although I'm not that much of a literary person- but I do realize the importance of literature and books. It's really sad that more and more people are losing interest in literature and mediocre literary works are becoming bestsellers nowadays.

And similar to Krishanu da , I also feel the similar joy when I come across a dog-eared precious book which had been lying in the corner of a bookstore for years. It's indeed a different experience.

with regards,
Soham Mukhopadhyay

Subhajit said...

Dear Sir,

After finishing my current read 'The museum of innocence' I am planning to start reading Khaled's second book.In the third paragraph of your blog you have mentioned that after reading the author's first two books you promised yourself not to read anymore of Khaled's works,which is why I am a bit confused on whether to carry on with my plan or not.Even though I enjoyed 'And the mountains echoed' thoroughly your advice will prove to be of a great value.Kindly suggest.

Thanking you,

Yours sncerely,
Subhajit Chakraborty

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
Thank you for writing this post. It prompted me to write my views on Hosseini's novels in my blog.
Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Subhajit, it's a wonderful book, go ahead. I only meant it gives you pain that is almost unbearable, beautiful as it is...

And Sayantika, I'm glad you put up a blogpost. I hope a lot of people will read it, and some even write informed and thoughtful comments.

Abhirup, your comments by themselves make my posts more worth reading. Thank you.

Sunandini Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
'And The Mountains Echoed',like the previous books of Hosseini made me cry,not merely because Abdullah and Pari find each other after decades but because Hosseini once again brings out the suffering of the soul.The facts that Pari always felt the absence of something or someone in her life and that after years of waiting Abdullah can no more remember his sister speak about the author's maturity at handling human emotions and at a time when sorrow is depicted in trashes such as 'I too had a love story'and 'The three mistakes of my life',one should read 'And The Mountains Echoed'to come out and face the reality.Khaled Hosseini's books have humbled me and made me realise how secure and blessed I am.It is a shame that we think so highly of ourselves without having to face any serious struggle or loss and Hosseini's books reiterate this realisation over and over again.
Thankyou Sir for putting up the post.

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Reading your post earlier made me want to read the book more than ever. Returning to this post after reading the book helped me to see things in a different perspective. It was as if the crux of the book was held in between your lines; I felt I was reliving the story again. Many thanks for this post Sir. Again I realized how you always said that you do not write about ‘passing fads’ and hence coming back to your old posts can never be a bore.

It is needless to mention that the same is true for Khaled Hosseini’s writings. His prose is so simple, calm and free flowing and yet it is capable of bringing out diverse and contradictory emotions in our hearts. The way in which various characters and their own lives are brought into this grand narrative reminds me of the novels of Sunil Gangopadhyay like ‘Purba-Paschim’, “Pratham Alo’. In ‘Purba-Paschim’, the idealistic, once naxalite Babloo ultimately settled down to a life of comfort in the US while his childhood friend Olly, mocked by Babloo and his political friends for leading an easy life and not getting involved in activism, became the only one to care for all the idealists when no one was there for them. Similiarly, in Hosseini’s novels, we are lured into judging the characters as either white or black only to find later on that there is a vast grey zone in between the two. And that the whole is not merely or necessarily the sum of parts, there is always something more to it. That it is not the end of the journey that is always meaningful but it is equally important to acknowledge our roots, to know where we started.

It is probably going to be few years before the release of another novel by Hosseini. But I am content with the fact that it will be worth waiting for it.

With regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you, Sunandini and Saikat, for sending such touching and well-thought-out comments. It makes me glad I took the trouble to write such posts. My best wishes to you. Keep reading and commenting!