And the Mountains Echoed | Khaled Hosseini

Popcorn tragedy

It doesn’t take long to guess the drift of Khaled Hosseini’s new novel, And the Mountains Echoed. A glance at the title (which alludes to a line by the poet, William Blake) is enough to give you a flavour of the dramatic fare that is about to be served up in the 400-odd pages that follow. And yet, in spite of the improbabilities in the plot, or maybe precisely because of these, you can’t stop turning the pages until you reach the inevitable happy ending—which, mercifully, is not all sweetness and light.

From the wild mountains of Afghanistan to the posh boulevards of Paris via the urbane surrounds of San Francisco and the rustic retreat of the Greek island of Tinos, Hosseini’s latest offering spans several countries and decades. The story moves back and forth, between the 1940s and the present, offering us glimpses of the aftermath of the Soviet invasion and a more detailed, though not always a nuanced, perspective on the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.

In his signature style, Hosseini weaves just the sort of yarn that gently tugs at the proverbial heartstrings of millions. His strength, as always, is good old-school storytelling, instantly gripping in the way an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show or a Hollywood tragicomedy is, the sort of thing that makes you sniffle a bit as you make your way through a bucket of popcorn in the relative comfort and safety of your living room or a movie theatre.

Hosseini in 2007. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Hosseini in 2007. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Like Hosseini’s earlier best-sellers, The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), And the MountainsEchoed dwells on family dynamics. If the previous novels focused on fathers and sons and mothers and daughters respectively, this one—no prizes for guessing—has a pair of siblings at its heart. Separated at birth, Pari and his brother Abdullah are reunited in the winter of their lives when, ironically, the latter has full-blown dementia and has lost most of his long-term memory.

Pari is sold off by her father Saboor, a wage labourer, to a feisty Afghan woman, Nila Wahdati, in order to save the rest of his clan from starvation. Born to a French mother and brought up by a tyrannical Afghan father, Nila flees her oppressive life in Kabul with her adopted daughter, leaving behind a dying husband who is a repressed homosexual in love with his chauffeur.

Even a life of binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and writing erotically charged poems cannot save Nila from herself. After misleading Pari about her parentage all her life, Nila leaves a hint of the truth in an interview she gives to a poetry journal days before she kills herself.

A counterpoint to the excesses of this domestic drama is the story of a Greek man who renounces a successful career as a plastic surgeon in Athens to devote his energies to fixing the humanitarian mess made by the US and its allies in Afghanistan. Like a typical Hosseini character, the doctor is wracked by the burden of a secret guilt, though not as terrifying as the one that weighs on Parwana, Saboor’s second wife, first for maiming and then for deserting her twin sister, Masooma.

Along the course of this meandering tale, whose ultimate destiny is the reunion of the parted siblings, several lives are ruined by choices made or not made, tough decisions are taken under duress, and epiphanies are experienced, often as cheesy one-liners. “A thousand tragedies per square mile," says a young Afghan-American visiting Kabul, after inspecting the damage caused by the government of his adopted country.

Although engaging, even in its episodic quality, the hydra-headed plot may leave the reader perplexed, if not impatient, from time to time. There is, for instance, a long-winded and somewhat unwarranted flashback to the Greek doctor’s boyhood years, the sole purpose of which is to justify his choice of profession. In another endless and sluggish section, two Afghan boys try to forge a friendship, only to discover how their fates have been poisoned by feuds between their forefathers. These digressions thicken not the plot but just the book, by a good hundred pages or so.