By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 20, 2007
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS
By Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead. 372 pp. $25.95
At the National Book Festival on Washington's Mall last fall, the line of people waiting to have Khaled Hosseini sign copies of his first novel, The Kite Runner, was so long it seemed to stretch across Memorial Bridge and into Virginia. It was telling proof of the extraordinary and somewhat implausible popularity enjoyed by that novel about a young Afghan who betrays his best friend but ultimately redeems himself though an act of selfless (if initially reluctant) generosity. The Kite Runner was a national and then international bestseller and remains one today, four years after its publication.
So now we have Hosseini's second novel. It too is set in Afghanistan, and it too deals with ordinary people whose lives are lastingly altered by the terrible events in that country during the past three decades. It's going to be another bestseller no matter what's said about it in this and other reviews, so maybe there's no point in going further. But just in case you're curious, just in case you're wondering whether in yours truly's judgment it's as good as The Kite Runner, here's the answer: No. It's better.
This is said in full knowledge of Hosseini's literary shortcomings. Though his prose usually is competent -- especially considering that English is not his native language -- it lacks grace and distinctiveness. The novel moves swiftly but is unwieldy, as Hosseini suddenly introduces an entirely new set of characters a quarter of the way through and needs another quarter of the way to get them fully involved in the plot. The book is powerfully moving, as was The Kite Runner, but Hosseini is not above melodrama and heartstring-tugging. A Thousand Splendid Suns is popular fiction of the first rank, which is plenty good enough, but it is not literature and should not be mistaken for such.
No matter. Hosseini, who appears to be an uncommonly decent man, seems also to be utterly without literary pretensions. "For me as a writer," he says in an interview distributed to reviewers, "the story has always taken precedence over everything else. I have never sat down to write with broad, sweeping ideas in mind. . . . For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place, about human connections, and then expands from there."
Certainly that is what takes place in A Thousand Splendid Suns. It begins with an unhappy little girl in a hut outside the Afghan city of Herat, then gradually widens its canvas to embrace numerous other people and to show, through their lives, what has happened to Afghanistan since the deposition of its last king in 1973.
The unhappy little girl is named Mariam. She is harami: a bastard. Her mother, Nana, was a servant in the household of Jalil, a rich and powerful man who took advantage of her. He built the hut for her and Nana, and occasionally visited them there, but utterly rejected his daughter in all other ways and kept her away from the 10 children he had by his three wives. Nana loves Mariam, in a crude way, but speaks bitterly to her, making plain that she "was an illegitimate person who would never have legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance." To Jalil's wives she is "the walking, breathing embodiment of their shame," and after Nana's death, they marry her off to Rasheed, a shoemaker from Kabul, "to erase, once and for all, the last trace of their husband's scandalous mistake."
Mariam is 15, Rasheed some 30 years her senior. He is a lout, his distinguishing features "the big, square, ruddy face; the hooked nose; the flushed cheeks that gave the impression of sly cheerfulness; the watery, bloodshot eyes; the crowded teeth, the front two pushed together like a gabled roof; the impossibly low hairline, barely two finger widths above the bushy eyebrows; the wall of thick, coarse, salt-and-pepper hair." Mariam is no beauty herself, but she has dignity and fortitude, and she suffers her husband's coarse behavior with as much cheer as she can muster. As it becomes increasingly clear that she will be unable to bear him children, his coarseness slips over into contempt and brutality:
"It wasn't easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid. And Mariam was afraid. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not."
As that passage suggests, the central theme of A Thousand Splendid Suns is the place of women in Afghan society. As a girl Mariam is told by her mother: "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam." And: "It's our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It's all we have." And: "She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. . . . As a reminder of how women like us suffer, she'd said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us."
Mariam's life with Rasheed is testimony enough to the validity of Nana's warnings, and it becomes even worse when he takes a girl, Laila, as his second wife. She is no more enthusiastic about this than Mariam was, but she has a reason to agree: She is newly pregnant by the young man she loves. Before she knew this, he asked her to marry him and she reluctantly declined, but now she believes he is dead. She hopes that Rasheed will believe her child is his own.
Mariam is outraged that this beautiful teenager has wormed her way into her household, and she speaks bitterly to her, but when the baby arrives -- it is a girl, no comfort to Rasheed, who expected a son -- Mariam becomes enchanted with the child and gradually softens toward the mother. After one of Rasheed's outbursts, "a look passed between Laila and Mariam. An unguarded, knowing look. And in this fleeting, wordless exchange with Mariam, Laila knew that they were not enemies any longer."
The story of these two women, which reaches its climax in an act of extraordinary generosity and self-sacrifice, plays out against the backdrop of Afghanistan's tumultuous recent history: the deposition of King Zahir Shah in 1973 by his cousin, Daoud Khan; the overthrow of Khan five years later by rebels supported by the Soviet Union; the long, bloody war against Soviet troops for control of the country; the rout of the communists in 1992 and the rise of the mujaheddin, under whose chaotic rule "Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other"; the calamitous triumph of the Taliban; the American invasion in the aftermath of September 2001.
Like a historian or a journalist, Hosseini is punctilious about providing dates for all of this, which seems a bit out of place in a work of fiction but doubtless will be useful to American readers, too few of whom know as much as the times demand about Hosseini's native land, where "every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief," yet where "people find a way to survive, to go on." Many of us learned much from The Kite Runner. There is much more to be learned from A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is, for all its shortcomings, a brave, honorable, big-hearted book. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.