Book Review

An Afghan Fairy-tale
And the Mountains Echoed
: Khaled Hosseini

– Mariam Karim

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Genre: Fiction
Extent: 416 pp
Price: Rs 599

And the Mountains Echoed begins with an alluring fairy tale, and we know in our part of the world, or perhaps everywhere, fairy tales and folktales tell of the inner souls of our lives, so deeply are our cultures entrenched in the storytelling tradition. We base our lives upon the stories we hear, and sometimes they come true for us. So Khaled Hosseini begins his latest oeuvre with an Afghan fairy tale, about a child-stealing ogre.

One cannot but marvel at the myriad characters and their individual stories that flow out from Hosseini's pen, great care and great compassion accorded to each. The manner in which he connects every individual story to the main story and knits them all together, so that each character's tale matters in the forwarding of the main tale, is indeed the work of a master craftsman.

The books spans many generations, and follows the lives of its protagonists over several decades, in fact, over a whole century.

And the Mountains Echoed is a human story. Unlike Hosseini's two earlier books, it isn't strictly an Afghan tale, though like them, it is set both in Afghanistan and the West in parts. It isn't a story, except in small parts, of migration or of its ensuing difficulties. It is the story of the deep and irreplaceable attachment between brother and sister. A story of poverty and what it may entail, a story that could be set anywhere in the Third World, for we know that children are sold and bartered for their own material benefit and for that of their parents

Seven year old Abdullah and three year old Pari, born in Shadbagh, (Garden of Happiness) are separated when their father Saboor sells off Pari at the behest of his brother-in-law, Nabi, to a rich childless family in Kabul. The doting precocious brother and the lovely infant sister are tragically destined thereafter to spend their lives apart, and to experience forever an inexplicable absence and sense of incompleteness and loss.

Initially, many of the relationships are predictable, simplistic, and almost Victoria Holtish, for example the twin sisters, Masooma and Parwana – one exquisite , one ugly; one joyous, one sad; a man they both desire, the jealousy creeping in, the uncontrollable anger . the wrong sister getting the groom, the life of penitence.

Their brother, Nabi, works for Suleiman Wahdati, an affluent gentleman in Kabul. When Nabi's tale begins in the form of a letter to a Mr Markos, an aid worker and plastic surgeon, it takes off with some verve and originality, but appears again for a while to be a Victoria Holtish story of the obsessive love of a servant for an unhappy, lonely, rebellious and exquisitely lovely mistress: it is only later we see the complexity of the tale... 'It was always you Nabi, didn't you know that, it was always you,' says Lila Wahdati as she leaves her home for Paris.

The characters are drawn out with great care, and as an intelligent observer of human nature, the author depicts them as flawed in one way or another, victims of circumstance or passion, some with deep tragic flaws: Lila's throwing away of her life, Nabi's blind passion, Suleiman's unacceptable preferences, Saboor's helplessness, Idris's feebleness, Timur's vanity, Markos's mother's severity, Thalia's facial deformity ... and so on and so forth.

However, whenever the tale switches era or character, the reader finds it difficult to adjust his/ her lens for a few pages, as the earlier story had him/ her so deeply involved. So one misses out on some things that if one had the patience one might need to go back to, to read again with proper understanding.

The other books I can think of with so many different characters, and such a great time and geographical span, are the Russian classics, but those are books one reads over time. One cannot read them in one sitting, and somehow the style (a certain gravity and depth) matches the pace of the writing, and the time frame drawn out by the authors. In Hosseini, the impatience and haste of our new world is apparent. His writing is clear, nay, pellucid, transparent, uncomplicated, readable, suited ideally to today's world, highly descriptive, totally un-nuanced, unputdownable. This very characteristic of his penmanship somehow prevents the reader from engaging more deeply with the characters, which, in my opinion, leaves something to be desired. The story is so fast-paced that the characters get left by the wayside. One is unable to chew and digest all the delicacies the book has to offer, even in terms of insights into human nature and relationships.

It is a lovely book I would not have missed, but one takes away little from it once it is finished. There is little left to ponder over (unlike with the Kite Runner, or A Thousand Splendid Suns). All is said and done, and the reader can move on without much regret.