“And The Mountains Echoed,” Khaled Hosseini’s new multigenerational novel, is about the love of brothers and sisters and extended family. Hosseini was born in Afghanistan in 1965 and settled with his family in San Jose, Calif., in 1980. He became a physician and is now a U.S. citizen.
Hosseini says that such a love isn’t perfect. The result is that family members also “wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other.”
This new book is a lesser novel than his earlier ones, despite its broader intent. The reason is that, even for a virtuoso artist, it is hard to maintain focus and suspense with relatives across countries and years that glide in and out of this multitudinous story.
By the way, I can only guess what the title means. There is no direct reference to it in the book. The mountains echoing seem to be an evocation of remembrance – a collation of the important things that individuals in a distant land forget as they grow older and less attentive.
The filial stories in this volume begin in 1952. A young girl, Pari, and her brother Abdullah travel with their father, Baba Ayub, by foot and cart from a small village in the hinterlands, Shadbagh, to Kabul. The children’s father is desperate for work after their beloved mother has died in childbirth.
They are encouraged to come to Kabul by their Uncle Nabi, who works for a wealthy family there as a cook and a chauffeur. With permission, Nabi drives in his employer’s car back to Shadbagh to see family in the home village once a month.
Out of this sequence of events and worse – the selling of Pari by her father to Nabi’s employer, Suleiman Wahdati, and his wife, Nila - develops a false identity for Pari that, in the end and against great odds, is revealed. It sustains the novel’s broad scope but at a cost of the reader’s endurance.
When Pari is 6, she moves with the woman she believes to be her mother to Paris. The woman, the poet Nila Wahdati, withholds details of their life together in Kabul until after her death. Pari does not learn of her earlier existence until a reporter, Etienne Boustouler, writes a story about Wahdati for a literary magazine.
By this time Pari has carried on with Julien, Wahdati’s lover, and is studying mathematics at the Sorbonne. Little wonder that Pari’s foster Mamam should insult her by saying, “I don’t see me in you. I don’t know who you are.” Mamam is on the skids with alcohol abuse and commits suicide in 1974.
Time passes. Pari takes a doctoral degree, marries her soul’s delight, a fine young man named Eric Lacombe, and they have three children, Isabelle, Alan and Thierry. Then tragedy strikes. Eric dies unexpectedly at 48. Pari develops degenerative arthritis.
More than this, Pari receives a mysterious phone call from Kabul from Markos Vavaris, a Greek surgeon who had come to Afghanistan years earlier to operate on children who suffered facial injuries. Vavaris has lived in the house Pari grew up in before she left for Paris. He informs Pari of a letter written by Uncle Nabi that divulges Pari’s true identity, which she begins to inchoately remember. Her recollection is sharpest concerning her brother, Abdullah, who protected her as a little girl. They were very close.
The cornucopia of stories that overflow this new novel’s pages may prompt some readers to say, “Too much.” But for the huge audience that awaited its publication, it may not nearly be enough. Hosseini’s earlier books have already sold more than 10 million copies.
Why such a big following? Hosseini writes a clear, vigorous prose. Characters grow and plots develop with the variability of life, chapter to chapter. This may seem obvious, but many novels lack the spine of humanity and contention to hold them together. Here, episodes are brief but powerful, adaptable to the “pick up, put down” pace of readers’ lives.
A brief reprise of Hosseini’s earlier books shows the scope of his enterprise. A decade ago, when I reviewed Hosseini’s remarkable first novel of prerevolutionary Afghanistan, I wrote that “ ‘The Kite Runner’ is a story of friendship, growing up, moral regret and learning that there is a way to be good again. The frame of the story is the rhythm of life.”
Four years ago, that rhythm of life in his second novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” was more asymmetric and heart-stopping than the first. It was the story of Mariam and Laila. The two of them lived – if one can call it that – through Afghan history from the 1970s to the present. Mariam was more than a decade older than Laila and there developed a mother-daughter closeness in what is at first a hostile relationship.
In these first two novels, Hosseini described the collapse of the Communist revolution, the depredation of Soviet occupation, civil war pitting tribe against tribe, the rise of the simple-minded and vicious Taliban, American intervention and attempted reconstruction by world powers. The author relived these years in miniature through Mariam and Laila’s eyes, showing how external events far beyond their understanding framed their lives. It was not a pretty picture.
In “And The Mountains Echoed,” Hosseini has lost a few steps to his writerly stride, but he does what all great artists do: He takes individual stories and, through the alchemy of insight, compassion and expression, universalizes them, thereby turning them into art.
A second book featuring Afghanistan has had the misfortune to be overshadowed by “And The Mountains Echoed.” “The Honey Thief” is an agreeable piece of artistry that attempts to put Afghanistan’s fable and fighting in historical context. These lyrical fables, set over the past 200 years in Afghanistan, are described by Afghani writer Najaf Mazari to Australian writer Robert Hillman.
The stories feature a poor people, the Hazara, who live in the hills between Kabul and Kandahar. As the authors put it, they “tenderly convey what it is like to grow up in a land of bloodshed and brotherhood, of miracles and catastrophes.”
One example may illustrate the stories’ value. “The Honey Thief,” the second piece in the collection, features two characters, Ahmad Hussein, a perwerrish dahenda, a beekeeper, a maker of honey. “This is a craft honoured amongst the Hazara since honey is the prince of foods and the process by which it is made is one of the marvels of the world. … The bees work for Ahmad Hussein as if he were their king.”
For his new apprentice, Ahmad chose Abbas, the grandson of an old friend who died, Esmail Behishti, as a matter of respect. Ahmad takes a great deal of time showing Abbas the proper place in certain fields where the bees’ special boxes might be placed. The reader is right to ask: Why all the care and rigor with this young boy by the beekeeper?
The answer is that Ahmad himself years earlier stole honey from the bees, and Abbas’ grandfather caught him. Because the bees were not angered with Ahmad’s theft, Esmail realized that Ahmad brought something special to his new craft. Now it is Ahmad’s turn to return the favor to Abbas.
Honey and more is the flavor of the stories: “… making a small difference here and there to the sympathy for people who are struggling through life.” As the authors relate, “Literature cannot change people’s hearts completely. Just a little. A little is OK.” “The Honey Keeper” is a sweet OK.
Michael D. Langan served as a senior expert with the United Nations, dealing with al Qaida and Taliban issues.