By Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Books. 416 pp. $28.95
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Reviewed by Susan Balée
Khaled Hosseini's novels capture at the personal level the history of his war-torn homeland: Fierce loyalties alternate with bloody betrayals.
His third novel, like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns before it, covers the last 50 years of Afghanistan's history, including the fall of the monarchy, Soviet occupation, the insurgent victory followed by a civil war, and the oppressive reign of the Taliban.
In the Hamid Karzai era, Afghans scattered by the violence have returned. One of the best characters in And the Mountains Echoed is a California doctor visiting Afghanistan with his brother. Idris Bashiri seems a stand-in for Khaled Hosseini himself: a liberal physician with gentle, good manners. He's embarrassed by Timur, his brash salesman brother.
[Timur] has behaved like the quintessential ugly Afghan-American, Idris thinks. Tearing through the war-torn city like he belongs here, backslapping locals with great bonhomie and calling them brother, sister, uncle, making a show of handing money to beggars from what he calls the Bakhsheesh bundle, joking with old women he calls mother and talking them into telling their story into his camcorder as he strikes a woebegone expression, pretending he is one of them, like he's been here all along, like he wasn't lifting at Gold's in San Jose, working on his pecs and abs, when these people were getting shelled, murdered, raped.
Idris appears a better man than his brother, especially when he quietly befriends a seriously wounded girl in a Kabul hospital, visiting her every day until she becomes deeply attached to him. He feels, as Hosseini must, that the "stories these people have to tell, we're not entitled to them." They are a gift given to the listeners. Insofar as the novel begins with the gift of a story told by a man who has nothing else to bestow, the point is apt.
In the end, Idris can't turn his compassion into action; back in America, he'd rather forget about the misery of his homeland. Hosseini himself worries his novels have "profited from [the] wretchedness" of ordinary Afghans, but unlike Idris, he has done great good for his fellow countrymen and women. He's an envoy for the U.N. Refugee Agency, and his best-selling novels end with information telling enraptured readers how they can help people like the characters they've just read about.
Hosseini aims his novels at an American audience. His first two novels motivated readers to open first their hearts, and then their checkbooks by telling stories with a traditional narrative arc and relatively happy endings. In this new one, he breaks those traditional narratives and shoves their fragments together.
The novel begins conventionally with a tale about a poor brother and sister separated when she is given away at age 3. Abdullah, completely devoted to his baby sister, Pari ("Abollah," she lispily calls him), resembles one of Dickens' saintly orphans, and even Hosseini seems gagged by the sappiness of his character. Readers will be far more drawn to a later story about a boy named Adel, the son of a former mujahideen warlord. Adel's father, Baba jan, has brought his village electricity, a medical clinic, and a school for girls. Adel's mother is his father's second wife, married when she was a young teen. " 'Jihad also earned you certain rights and privileges,' he said, 'because God sees to it that those who sacrifice the most justly reap the rewards as well.' "
Adel, a lonely child confined to his father's fortified compound, sneaks out and befriends a poor boy camping near the grounds. Gholam, a refugee from Pakistan, turns out to be a hustler who opens Adel's eyes to some home truths about his father. As the partial narratives add up - a beautiful, self-destructive poetess takes her adopted daughter and flees Kabul for Paris; a Greek plastic surgeon helps Afghans because he's haunted by the memory of his own adopted sister's ravaged face; two sisters, one beautiful, one ugly, love the same man, with tragic consequences - one begins to suspect Hosseini has started several novels in the last half-dozen years and not been able to finish any of them.
Some reviewers will love the experimental feel of Hosseini's edgy mosaic; the rest of us will wait for his next novel, which will likely be surer of its purpose.