Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Among the books I'm reading at the moment (having recently finished the last Harry Potter) is the new work by Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Some books I work my way through and have little to say about. Some, I'll offer quotes from, or insights from, but with the caveat that it's not worth reading the whole work to get that little bit. This isn't one of those books. I enjoyed The Kite Runner. I'm enjoying this newer work even more.

Most writers have a forte (some don't, being universally mediocre in every respect, but the better ones do), a particular aspect of the craft in which they excel. Separate from that unique strength in their writing, most also have a particular theme they wish to explore, sometimes in just one work, sometimes across a lifetime of work. (Cormac McCarthy for instance, has spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the existence of God with the depravity of man. Or, in the case of Philip Roth's, if man were not a sexual creature, Mr. Roth would have nothing to write about--even his lamentations on old age and death find a way to revolve around sex.) In the case of Dr. Hosseini, his greatest skills lie in the areas of storytelling--plot and narrative--and in the development and exploration of character. And it is the latter in which seems to lie his particular interest. Yes, he has set his stories in Afghanistan, and they are interesting, at least in part, for the glimpses they offer us of that war-torn country and the intersection of events there with the lives of the characters he creates. But setting a story in an interesting place doesn't make one an author worth reading, an author who works are likely to last.

What makes Dr. Hosseini worth reading is his fascination with human nature. With its complexity. With its resilience. In many respects, the aspects of human nature that fascinate Dr. Hosseini and motivate him to write, to explore, are opposite of those which drive McCarthy or Roth. Love (the variety of which sexuality would only be an expression rather than the whole) and guilt fascinate Dr. Hosseini. Misplaced, misguided, frustrated, deserved and un, absent from places that it should be and present in places you wouldn't expect it. And so, both his theme and his forte become character itself. Happy union for us.

The importance of the setting in all of this is not so much what it contributes to the quality of the novels, but that it makes the novels available to us. The stories and the characters therein would be just as compelling were they lifted out of Afghanistan and placed in Biloxi. Then again, I may be selling the setting a little short in saying that, for what Hosseini has done in these works, even more in the second, is to make the land of Afghanistan, the country itself, a character capable of both love and guilt. As such, with Afghanistan so ever-present in our headlines, the books have a compelling interest to publishers that they might not otherwise have possessed. I'm grateful for that. And any critique that realization implies is meant not for the author or his novels, but for the industry on which they depend. The works are worthwhile in their own right, perhaps even great. Whatever their success owes to their setting is incidental at best.

And the settings are especially poignant for me. I've been to Kabul. I've walked Chicken Street, with a boy no older than Hassan as guide and translator. I've shopped there for old weapons--Enfields from wars a century or more ago. When Hosseini's young protagonist reflects on the division of Kabul into sections ruled by rival warlords, I flash back to a conversation I had with an Afghan translator, Abdullah, in 2002, at the airport in Kabul, during which he recalled the very same thing, and hoped aloud that Western forces would remain in his country long enough to secure the peace until the people of Afghanistan could secure it for themselves. A generation, he predicted, would be needed. Time to educate a generation of women the education of whom the Taliban had considered anathema--a generation of boys bred mostly to the trigger. I've driven and walked the rutted streets of Bamiyan. I've stood beside tall poplars and gazed in awe across the green valley at the holes in the side of the cliff--huge, upright, reverse sarcophagi where once the Buddhas stood (and atop which Hosseini's characters stand), now gaping tributes to the scourge that was and is the Taliban. I've posed for a photo in the shadow of the fortress of Shahr-i-Zohak, the Red City. I've been lost in the countryside after sunset, and driven through small villages where the face of Ahmad Shah Massoud still looked back from the sides of buildings. I've walked the ground in Jalalabad, and watched the traffic passing on its way to and from Pakistan. I found that country fascinating enough overall, that not long ago, I volunteered to return for a year in a job that would have not simply allowed me to see virtually all of that land, but obligated me to, and afforded me the opportunity to learn the language to boot. Unfortunately, the timing of the assignment and my own mandatory retirement prevented it.

I've not even finished Hosseini's newest work yet, but I can't imagine that anything in the second half is going to change my recommendation. Read it. Read it whether you care about Afghanistan or not. Read it for the glimpses it offers of the human heart, independent of culture, of setting, of time itself.

Chicken Street

Abdullah. An interesting convergence that only struck me now: an American whose given name means "bearing Christ" and an Afghani whose name means "servant of Allah."

The fortress of Shahr-i-Zohak, the Red City.

Looking across the valley at the empty hole where once a great Buddha stood.