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Useful Disasters

A Thousand Splendid Suns

By Khaled Hosseini

Though there has been much awestruck speculation about the apparently limitless marketability of Khaled Hosseini’s two novels, The Kite Runner and the recently released A Thousand Splendid Suns, the storytelling strategy employed in both books contains no mysteries. Both are forged from disasters, multitudes of them, occurring at regularly spaced intervals to dash each hastily erected hope for happiness like waves against sandcastles. On page 34 of A Thousand Splendid Suns, a young Afghan named Mariam finds her mother hanging dead from a noose under a weeping willow tree. On page 49 Mariam is forsaken by her father and married off to Rasheed, a brutish man twenty years her elder. On page 81 she suffers a miscarriage. On page 94 Rasheed, angered by her cooking, forces her to eat stones and breaks two of her teeth.

 
On page 123 two brothers of Laila, the second heroine in the tandem tragedy, are killed fighting the Soviets. On page 166 Laila is separated from her true love, Tariq. On page 173 a rocket lands on Laila’s house and kills the rest of her family. On page 193 she too is forced to marry the swinish Rasheed. On page 235 she and Mariam are caught trying to run away and beaten to within an inch of their lives. On page 260 Laila undergoes a caesarian section without any anesthetic. On page 270 Rasheed’s shoe-repair shop burns down and the family begins to starve for lack of money: “My children are going to die,” Laila says. “Right before my eyes.” On page 286 a member of the Taliban beats Laila with a radio antennae. And on page 308, “Without saying a word,” Rasheed,

swung the belt at Laila. He did it with such speed that she had no time to retreat or duck, or even raise a protective arm. Laila touched her fingers to her temple, looked at the blood, looked at Rasheed, with astonishment. It lasted only a moment or two, this look of disbelief, before it was replaced by something hateful.

Given the uninterrupted clip of horrors poor Laila has to that point undergone, even a moment of disbelief at further mistreatment seems unlikely. In any case, the rhythmic tide of tragedies slaps across the pages of this novel at a steady rate through to its conclusion sixty pages later (and, indeed, on into Hosseini’s afterword). Let no one say of A Thousand Splendid Suns that nothing happens.

But does this exactly explain the phenomenal success of Hosseini’s novels, a success attained, it seems almost blasphemously, without an explicit decree from Oprah Winfrey? The problem for critics, arm-twisted by 50 million Kite Runner fans into giving A Thousand Splendid Suns its due, is identifying the qualities that make Hosseini a talented popular novelist. Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post’s very own mossbacked pedagogue, encapsulates Hosseini this way:

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 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 as such.

Grateful though we may be for Yardley’s austere, yardstick-tapping correction, there is probably little reason to worry that anyone will make this particular mistake. But is A Thousand Splendid Suns really “popular fiction of the first rank,” and if so, how does is rise so ostentatiously above its popularizing peers?

The ghastly gamut through which Mariam and Laila are trundled does indeed bring about (if only momentarily) the sought-after emotions of pity and sadness in the reader. Really, when the scene is a kindly woman getting her teeth smashed, even though it is depicted in broad, nondescript strokes, what choice does the reader have but to feel sorry? Very few people will care to muster enough cynicism to resent such menial manipulations.

Hosseini deals in stark injustice: bastard children abandoned by parents, families killed by indiscriminately fired rockets, women classified as chattel by evil, fundamentalist regimes and treated as such by cruel, stupid men. When presented with these terms, any reader with even a rudimentary sense of right and wrong is going to be touched.

By all means, then, let Hosseini orphan his children and beat hell out of his women—but surely his mass appeal is attributable to more than just the public’s craving for long, rending object lessons in misery and unfairness.

The answer doesn’t lie in his prose, in any case, which does not even rise to the level of “bad.” This reviewer was dismayed to discover that there is virtually nothing in this characterless writing that lends itself to spoofing—no quirks or tics or stylistic enormities. Bad writing results (apart from old-fashioned laziness) from a writer straining for effects beyond his ability, or it appears as the hideous mutation of a complexly evolving talent. But Hosseini doesn’t reach for anything that would compel him to get out of his armchair; he misses few notes simply because he doesn’t remove his fingers from the same ten keys.

When, for instance, he wants to sing of the love Laila feels for Tariq, he writes, “Tariq wasn’t like some of the other boys, whose hair concealed cone-shaped skulls and unsightly lumps. Tariq’s head was perfectly curved and lump-free.” Ad copyists have harder-working muses. And here he describes the watershed moment of the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan with comparable gusto:

Spectators had gathered on both sides of the thoroughfare outside the Military Club near Wazir Akbar Khan. They stood in muddy snow and watched the line of tanks, armored trucks, and jeeps as light snow flew across the glare of the passing headlights. There were heckles and jeers. Afghan soldiers kept people of the street. Every now and then, they had to fire a warning shot.

Every now and then! It’s like being there in person!

All this is the prose equivalent of those single-celled organisms that imperturbably float in humid, unchanging swamps, impervious to the stunning or freakish adaptations taking place all around them. The truth is that Hosseini is not endowed with much natural talent at all, neither as a wordsmith nor as a storyteller. What he does possess is upper-level literacy, a propensity for cheerfully piling on the catastrophes, and the immeasurable luck of having been born in a country with which the major English-speaking nations have recently gone to war.

Natasha Walter, writing in London’s Guardian, sums up the case very handily:

You might think this novel is becoming too melodramatic, as one horror succeeds another with rockets blowing families apart and attempted escapes and even murder, alongside the beatings and whippings and threats that make up the women’s daily experiences. But when I started to think this I remembered women I met in Kabul, and how many of them had stories to tell almost as melodramatic as this.

How fortunate for Hosseini to hail from a country whose troubles, apparently, justify melodrama. The latitude offered here doesn’t long stand up to scrutiny. It’s not as though Hosseini writes with the alternating dullness and shrillness of a bel canto opera because that’s the style that best suits his subject: he simply doesn’t have the chops to write otherwise.

You don’t have to have gone on a missionary junket to Kabul to be able to rationalize the faults of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Most readers will have seen enough news footage of thuggish Taliban waving automatic weapons, women in burqas subject to the scourge of Sharia law, and Afghan neighborhoods bombed to rubble to be able to make a greater political sense of these pages of fetishistic suffering. Despite all the courteous palavering about Hosseini’s instinctive storytelling ability and plainspoken sensitivity, his novels are only about where they take place. Readers come to them bringing their own charitable desire to understand and sympathize with his characters, their own conscientious need to connect with the innocents on whose behalf their country has fought a war. The distant, lopsided nature of the war in Afghanistan has touched the sensors of guilt and altruism in the Western world, creating the urge to become somehow personally involved in the struggle.

In short, a writer with the same skills and deficiencies as Hosseini who was born in Namibia, Bolivia, or Virginia would very simply have no writing career. As it is, Hosseini’s readers do nearly all his work for him.

Once again, rising from the cerements to complete his lecture, Jonathan Yardley:

Like a historian or a journalist, Hosseini is punctilious about providing dates for [Afghanistan’s history], 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 in 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.

Their tutelary function is unquestionably central to the popularity of both of Hosseini’s novels. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, such “useful” political history is presented with slightly less subtlety than a textbook timeline:

Six months later, in April 1988, Babi came home with big news.
“They signed a treaty!” he said. “In Geneva. It’s official! They’re leaving. Within nine months, there won’t be any more Soviets in Afghanistan!”
Mammy was sitting up in bed. She shrugged.
“But the communist regime is staying,” she said. “Najibullah is the Soviets’ puppet president. He’s not going anywhere. No, the war will go on. This is not the end.”

Mammy amazingly proves a prophet, and the wars will continue throughout the novel, in the course of which the reader will learn many other useful names: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the few prime ministers in history to launch missile strikes against his own capital; Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik leader who opposed Hekmatyar and was assassinated two days before September 11; the mercenary Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum, who switched alliances midway through the civil war; and many other kings, communists, mujahideen, and Taliban, up to the present warlords that “have been allowed back to Kabul” after the American-led invasion.

What makes this information palatable is that it is served mostly as dinner-table gossip, so that Laila and Mariam learn of each unfolding event in the same secondhand manner as the Western reader does:

“There is a rumor,” Rasheed said over dinner that night…, “that Dostum is going to change sides and join Hekmatyar. Massoud will have his hands full then, fighting those two. And we mustn’t forget the Hazaras.”

Jot that down, dilettantes of Afghan history: never forget the Hazaras.

But in fact, it quickly comes to seem that most of the political history presented here has been chosen to accommodate what Westerners already know. Hosseini sets an early family scene before the enormous Buddhas carved into the mountains of Western Afghanistan (demonstrating the élan that we have come to expect from his prose, he has Tariq marvel, “I feel so small”). The poignancy of this otherwise pedestrian situation is entirely supplied by the reader, who knows the Taliban destroyed these Buddhas. On multiple occasions we are assured that wearing the veil is a horrible, humiliating constraint, an easily digestible conclusion for a non-veil-wearing people. Kabul’s most memorable social phenomenon is the mania that accompanied the movie Titanic, conveniently paralleling any Westerner’s experience. And to Laila and Mariam, one of the most invasive strictures imposed by the Taliban regime is its ban on televisions—you can almost hear Middle America collectively gasping in outrage.

Hosseini profits from reinforcing the Western characterization of Afghanistan as a stygian battleground of inhumanity and evil populated by bands of longsuffering victims with unconquerable spirits. It’s an Afghanistan reduced to allegory, to fairy tale. And there is something both touching and pathetic in the way that Westerners have cleaved to his novels—touching because the sentiment that drives us to want to understand Afghans is a noble one (their future, after all, hangs on the actions of their occupiers); and pathetic because our acculturated laziness ensures that we’ll search no farther for understanding than the superficial novels of a bland and fairly talentless popularizer.

And really, why should the novel, the richest, most expansive of all the art forms still practiced, be made to suffer for our laziness? The most worthwhile thing about reading A Thousand Splendid Suns is the way that its manifest deficiencies tease the imagination. Hosseini has rigged a framework of appealing scope: just imagine what a writer with range, a gift for language, and long-term dedication could do with it. Picture what could be done with the scene of the Soviets leaving Afghanistan, for example, in the hands of a novelist who was interested in evoking more than the bare historical fact of the event. Think of the possibilities of a long, unsparing, lovingly detailed family saga laid across—and of course colliding with—thirty years of turbulent Afghan history. Imagine a book, in short, that aimed to do something more lasting than merely make its readers feel better connected to current events—a book that aspired to be more than a smooth-edged palliative.

It won’t be long before novels emerge from the war in Iraq (at least we should hope it won’t be long, since the appearance of novels would indicate some amount of stability in the country). They will almost certainly be about struggling young people caught up in the whirlwinds of dictatorship and subsequent civil war. But within this milieu there is room for both the generic, ephemeral work that capitalizes on the West’s dim sense of responsibility and the great, gifted work that etches its subject permanently on the tablet of history. Either one will make the bestseller list and heaps of money. We’re all going to read these books, whichever they turn out to be; hopefully, though, we’ll have the integrity to recognize one from the other.

____
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.

2 Comments »

  • Justbooksclc says:

    Hosseini, the author of the Kite Runner, has offered another heart rending and gripping tale. This time the protagonists are two women, whose lives are shaped by the brutal realities of their war ravaged land and by some of the “less than honourable” traditions of their civilization.

  • just saying says:

    Well I wouldn’t read it if it weren’t written by Khaled Housseni, I think he captures it perfectly. And no I don’t think another author could do it more justice than him; its a beautiful, heart wrenching story about the toil and turmoil of two women and will appeal to anyone … With a heart that is . :)

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