An Old, Familiar Face
Monday, May 28, 2007
Khaled Hosseini is starving. The fussy little frizzle of lettuce on his plate isn't what he hoped for, not the hearty luncheon salad he had clearly asked for, yet the wildly acclaimed author of "The Kite Runner" can't bring himself to send it back, make a scene or simply order more food. He eats without complaint, takes only one roll from the basket, thanks the waiter warmly and accepts his fate with the same inscrutable Afghan resignation that makes the characters in his new novel maddening or heroic -- and often both.
"Zendagi migzara" is how the 42-year-old Californian would put it in his native Farsi. "Life goes on."
For Hosseini, life doesn't go forward so much as backward, as he continues to explore the psyche of the country he left as a little boy, avoiding three decades of war and mayhem by being the "nauseatingly fortunate" son of a diplomat who was already posted to Paris when the turmoil began. He did not escape Afghanistan so much as abandon it, and he returns there again in "A Thousand Splendid Suns" to reconcile his childhood's watercolor memories with reality's bloody tableau.
Just before "The Kite Runner's" release in 2003, Hosseini returned to Afghanistan for the first time. Those two weeks would provide much of the material for "A Thousand Splendid Suns," with Hosseini on a novelist's deeply personal fact-finding mission.
"To my knowledge, everything I wrote was based on something I saw or heard," Hosseini says. The dismal conditions at a Kabul hospital, for example, came straight from Hosseini's own visit to a surgical ward, where he encountered a family whose small son was having an operation.
"The neurosurgeon came out, and he has this handful of prescriptions he's trying to give the father. He's telling him, 'We don't have serum' -- which is what you use for IVs -- 'we don't have calcium, we don't have antibiotics.' " Hosseini, who spent a few ambivalent years practicing medicine before writing his first novel, immediately understood what the illiterate villager did not: The only chance the child had of getting any of the medicines he needed was if his family found them for him. Hosseini took the prescriptions himself and embarked on a scavenger hunt across the city, from pharmacy to pharmacy, until all were filled.
Likewise, the horror stories he heard about the Soviet invasion, mujaheddin, Taliban rule and all manner of war atrocities made their way into the novel centering around the lives of two Afghan women, Laila and Mariam.
"I think all writers are unapologizing thieves," Hosseini admits with the same self-effacing humor that had charmed the audience at a Smithsonian lecture the night before. He doesn't boast about the 4 million copies of "The Kite Runner" published in 34 countries, recounting, instead, how "there were days when I couldn't pay people to read that novel."
"I went to an appearance at one bookstore, and the person who organized it wasn't there," Hosseini recalls. He was greeted by a kid with purple hair who didn't know who he was. Hosseini explained that he was the guest author, and soon found himself facing "like, 80 empty chairs and three people. One was a little old lady who must have been 92, and the other was a couple in their 60s." Hosseini suggested they all save face, and offered to just sign books and chat. The trio insisted on the promised reading. Hosseini obliged.
"Then, as I'm reading, I hear this click-click-click noise, and the little old lady is making her way past the podium on her walker."
Now, launching an ambitious seven-week publicity tour across the country for "A Thousand Splendid Suns," with a six-nation European swing planned for the fall, Hosseini seems safely past such indignities, his following so assured that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recently named him a special envoy. Hosseini traveled to Chad earlier this year to visit two teeming refugee camps. And, as had been the case in Afghanistan, he found himself drawn again most deeply into the plight of women.
"There's a tremendous shortage of funds for the victims of Darfur," Hosseini says. "One of the biggest problems at the camps is when the women go out to gather firewood to cook, and they get attacked and raped." A German inventor has built a mini-oven that requires only 20 percent of the current amount of wood, Hosseini notes, and "it only costs around $70." But there aren't funds to buy enough of them, he adds, and women and girls end up brutally beaten and dead as a result. It's a fate that can be changed, the novelist points out.