14 October, 2013Issue 23.1FictionLiterature

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Exploiting Afghan Victimhood

Dominic Davies

HosseiniKhaled Hosseini
And the Mountains Echoed
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013
£18.99
404 pages
ISBN 978-1408842423

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In a review of Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), Scarlett Baron noted the Afghan-born American novelist’s exploration of “Afghanistan’s relentlessly gut-wrenching recent past”. The word surfaced again as she commented on the way in which Hosseini “relentlessly exposes the injustices to which women are subjected”. Her analysis is an accurate one: the word “relentless” encapsulates the repeated and incrementally horrifying forms of violence, oppression, and misfortune which are suffered by Hosseini’s protagonists and which dominate the world of his fiction. Through all of his novels there runs a theme of pervasive injustice—and the glimmers of hope which he does allow are nothing more than pseudo-poetic musings on Afghanistan’s war-torn landscape. Those familiar with A Thousand Splendid Suns or The Kite Runner (2003)—Hosseini’s first and most acclaimed novel—will know that his plots are defined by their pessimistic outlook on the country of his birth. To pick up a novel by Khaled Hosseini is to enter a bleak world where injustice is commonplace, where the forces of fate and bad luck intensify the oppression of the innocent, and where only occasionally does individual agency overcome structural violence. And the Mountains Echoed, Hosseini’s latest contribution, is no exception.

There is a criticism that might be levied at Hosseini and especially his depiction of Afghanistan. The “relentless” suffering of Hosseini’s protagonists—written in English explicitly for a Western readership (the covers of all three novels have now been carefully branded to make them recognisable as a “Hosseini novel” at a glance)—is, in a sociopolitical context at least, somewhat problematic. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that Hosseini takes the layers of injustice that have dominated different social groups in Afghanistan over the last half-century as his focus—and indeed, this is a geographical and historical time frame that this latest novel also mostly adheres to. But this suffering is so relentless that it might, in fact, be too relentless. The suffering of Afghans is to an extent commodified, perhaps even exploited, to sell novels to readers in the West who are fascinated by what is, in Western popular consciousness, a war-torn, desolate country. Situated within the portrayal of Afghanistan by the international media as a country of suicide bombers and female oppression, Hosseini’s work does little to add complexity to these discourses, instead further entrenching the simplistic fetishisation that to be Afghan is to suffer.

Hosseini writes for readers who are detached from any immediate experience of violence and injustice, but who are fascinated by it. He places these subjects a safe distance, framing and describing them at length with exaggeration and proliferation that border on the vulgar. In so doing, he taps into a peculiar psychology that refuses the population of Afghanistan, allegorised in the suffering of his protagonists, any form of happiness, hope, or justice. Within the political context of the 21st century, this takes on a darker twist, recalling the ideological mechanisms—such as the use of “Operation Enduring Freedom” as the official title for the invasion of Afghanistan by the UK, US, and others in October 2001—which have been used to generate public consent in the West for deployment in Afghanistan. The population of Afghanistan is oppressed and needs to be freed from the systemic injustices of their totalitarian governments and military leaderships—a crude and simplified understanding of what is a complex political situation and one which has arguably been exacerbated by military intervention. Hosseini’s work could be understood as fuelling this dangerously uncritical imagining.

As literary works, Hosseini’s novels do more than this, but it is a necessary perspective from which to view And the Mountains Echoed. Hosseini’s most recent contribution, while failing to depart from the successful formula of relentless Afghan suffering, takes on a self-conscious dimension that is absent from his first two novels. It moves beyond the borders of Afghanistan—where A Thousand Splendid Suns remained adamantly and claustrophobically within one violence-ridden, domestic sphere—not only to the US, as did The Kite Runner, but also to Paris. Moreover, one of the novel’s central characters is a wealthy, Afghan-born poet, who has gained significant success in Paris. This success is rooted in her poetic depiction of the suffering of rural Afghans, and she is plagued by guilt over what she describes as her “exploitation” of this suffering. In addition, she is a suicidal and temperamental character whom the novel encourages its readers to dislike: Hosseini has written the exploitative element of his own novels into this character. This could be understood as an isolation of his own concerns in an attempt to generate space for a critical engagement with them, though the failure of the novel to address more broadly the very problem critiqued through this character might also suggest a narcissistic intensification of the exploitation of Afghan suffering. And as one of Hosseini’s Afghan characters writes:

You know well the recent history of this beleaguered country. I need not rehash for you those dark days. I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been chronicled, and by pens far more learned and eloquent than mine.

These words exhibit a peculiar schizophrenia. The “learned and eloquent” penning of these “dark days” cannot help but refer, albeit implicitly, to Hosseini’s own earlier novels. There is a fatigue for the hopeless, “relentless” suffering that he has spent so much time documenting, as he nevertheless fails to move away from it completely. Though unable to produce an extended interrogation of the idea that Afghanistan has only ever had “dark days”—one that might suggest that some Afghans have, in the last 60 years, lived lives that weren’t dominated by ongoing suffering—the concern is nestled into these chinks that are scattered through And the Mountains Echoed.

This slight shift, a departure from the earlier novels and one that begins the sort of self-criticism of which good literature is capable, is accompanied by a development in narrative structure. The novel’s form is still conservative and by no means experimental in style, but Hosseini is beginning to take more risks, to explore different textual channels. And the Mountains Echoed narrates events from different characters’ perspectives in shifting textual forms, from notes and letters to magazine articles and interviews. The reader is presented not with a simple third-person, chronological narrative, but a web of texts and the lives they depict that jolt back and forth through time, while retaining a semi-chronological movement that tells a story of Afghanistan, and beyond, from the late 1940s right up to 2013. The chapters are split between characters who are related to, and thus shed light on, the over-arching narrative to different extents; the different sections and character stories intersect in complex ways, unfolding the broader picture that the novel paints from different perspectives. A refreshing result of this technique is that Hosseini’s plot is by no means neat, and there is a stalwart refusal through each of these individual narratives to tie everything together too tightly. Rather than the sections being designed solely to embellish on those that have come before, each instead tells a character’s story for its own sake. The result is a series of tangential yet compelling narratives that, through their own peripheral details contribute to the formation of a coherent, cross-generational, and cross-border whole.

Hosseini further capitalises on this effective technique. These different narratives resemble one another in subtle and thematic ways, inviting the reader to see patterns that are carefully evoked at varying stages in the course of each chapter. However, Hosseini’s narrative is at its strongest when these similarities, though undoubtedly present, are simultaneously rejected by the novel. Symbols and themes are overlaid across and between the novel’s alternative narrative strands, allowing the reader to think, momentarily, that he or she has understood a broader movement that will tie the novel together as a whole, reducing it to some sort of symbolic message or motif. However, the circumstances of each individual narrative are unpredictable and shift suddenly, shaking off the patterns that the reader has been invited to see. Any simple reading of the novel, and subsequently of the Afghan characters that populate it, is thus teased out and then cast aside. This begins to undo the criticisms that might be levied at his earlier work by engaging with them on a formal level. The reader is invited to think that all these diverse characters must be similar, tied together as they are by their Afghan origins, before this assumption of similarity and stereotype is unravelled by the subtlety of the individual narratives.

It is not perhaps surprising that And the Mountains Echoed has tackled this issue through plot and narrative, rather than on any explicit sociopolitical level. After all, Hosseini’s international success has been premised on his ability to tell a good story, and all his novels have undoubtedly been page-turners, no matter how questionable their politics may be. And the Mountains Echoed seems to have been written with this in mind, as the novel’s opening sentence reveals:

So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one. Don’t either of you ask me for more.

But it is the plurality of the stories, with their shifting interrelations and discrepancies, that gives this novel its power. And the Mountains Echoed is carefully woven, overlaid, and intertwined, producing a work of art at its centre where the patterns come into formation and make sense, while remaining refreshingly frayed at the edges, denying any totalisation of its symbolic or thematic meaning. This is a story book—and Khaled Hosseini has proved once again that he is a man who can tell stories.

Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief at the Oxonian Review.