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Khaled Hosseini sets 'And the Mountains Echoed' against Afghan history

A father's decision to give his 3-year-old daughter to a wealthy family in Kabul begins an almost 60-year Afghan history lesson as recounted by the characters in Khaled Hosseini's newest novel.

May 23, 2013|By Wendy Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The cover of "And the Mountains Echoed" and author Khaled Hosseini.
The cover of "And the Mountains Echoed" and author Khaled Hosseini. (Riverhead Books; Elena…)

Although Khaled Hosseini has lived in the United States since he was 15, he remains engaged in the struggles of his native Afghanistan, which he has made palpable for Western readers in two bestselling novels, "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." His beautifully written, masterfully crafted new book, "And the Mountains Echoed," spans nearly 60 years of Afghan history as it investigates the consequences of a desperate act that scars two young lives and resonates through many others.

The novel opens in 1952, with a man on the eve of a journey telling his son and daughter a story about a villager forced to give his beloved youngest child to a malevolent div (or devil). Saboor is usually authoritarian and uncommunicative, but every now and then he delights 10-year-old Abdullah and 3-year-old Pari with tales of magic beings and far-off lands that temporarily liberate their father's imagination, beaten down by years of grinding labor and poverty.

The children learn the dreadful significance of this particular tale when they arrive in Kabul. Their Uncle Nabi has arranged for Pari to be adopted by his wealthy, childless employers, Suleiman and Nila Wahdati. The terrified girl is whisked away, screaming. Her devastated brother is taken home to their village, forbidden by his father even to cry. But this abandonment shatters Saboor as well; he never tells another story.

Each of the subsequent narratives unfolds from its predecessor, a technique that echoes the classic form of "A Thousand and One Nights." Though the novel is realistic in style, often grim in subject matter, the magic of storytelling infuses it with a tough sort of optimism, a faith that if people can't necessarily wrest happiness from a hard world, they can at least achieve understanding.

The chronology is fragmented and fluid as multiple, intricately interconnected narrators advance their personal stories within the larger drama of Afghanistan's ordeal. After Suleiman is crippled by a stroke in 1955, Nila leaves for Paris, seeking to free herself and Pari from the patriarchal restrictions imposed on Afghan women.

When we see them again in 1974, Nila's lies have erased Pari's past; she has been raised to believe she is this drunken, furious woman's biological daughter, and she doesn't remember her lost brother. Yet all her life Pari has been haunted by "the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence."

Nabi cares for Suleiman through the 1990s civil war and the Taliban's brutal rule, glimpsed in his account through the damage inflicted on the Wahdati home by rockets and looters. After Suleiman dies and bequeaths the house to him, Nabi donates it as a residence for medical personnel caring for injured children in the wake of the Taliban's expulsion.

In 2003, Idris and Timur, cousins who grew up down the street from this building, come to Kabul to reclaim the house their family abandoned during the Soviet invasion. The yawning gulf between these affluent Afghan-Americans and those who could not escape is scathingly revealed after they fly back to San Francisco, where a brief scene reintroduces Abdullah, now the gray-haired proprietor of a kebab house with a daughter named Pari. Promises to arrange surgery for an Afghan child disfigured by a deranged relative slowly evaporate in the California sunshine, though they are ultimately redeemed in an unexpected quarter.

The only chapter as discomfiting as this dissection of moral weakness — and just as good — returns the reader to Pari and Abdullah's childhood village in 2009. Hosseini depicts a boy slowly realizing that his adored father is not the village's benefactor, but a war criminal who has built a mansion on Saboor's land and killed the man with legal title to it. These two stark episodes counterpoint the novel's more numerous and more forgiving portraits of people hard-pressed by circumstance who make mistakes.

Mistakes have irrevocable consequences, as we see in the wrenching final chapter narrated by Abdullah's daughter, Pari, in 2010. Rediscovery of a stolen past can't undo the damage inflicted by fate and chance.

"And the Mountains Echoed" is painfully sad but also radiant with love: the enduring bond of a brother and sister; the irritable but bedrock connection of cousins; the quiet intimacy of master and servant who become friends; the commitment of a doctor and nurse to war's victims. To underscore love's centrality and contingency, Hosseini closes with an image drawn from a dream: a snapshot of bygone happiness all the more precious in retrospect because we know how fragile it is.

Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940," which will be reissued in July.


And the Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead: 416 pp., $28.95


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