July 9, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | July 9, 2007 |


Don’t let the title fool you — there’s nothing particularly “splendid” about the lives of the two main characters in Khaled Hosseini’s new novel. A Thousand Splendid Suns is not a happy book — in fact, it makes 100 Years of Solitude feel like mere decades, and Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, seem positively sunny — a Woody Allen farce set in Afghanistan — by comparison. God’s Honest: This book is hard.

But that’s sort of the miracle of Hosseini’s prose — it doesn’t feel hard reading it. There’s something weirdly simple and crackling about the way Hosseini writes. For good or bad, depending on your level of intellectual snobbery, his books read like beach novels, only their subjects are heavy and complex, dealing with a part of the world we hear little about but for its associations with terrorism. I thought Kite Runner was an isolated phenomenon — I never thought that the hard luck history of Afghanistan could again be made so engaging. Yet the lives of the protagonists — Mariam and Laila — of A Thousand Splendid Suns are wrapped even tighter in the ever-changing politics and culture of that horrendously embattled country. And this book is no less gripping.

In Kite Runner, Hosseini’s characters took us up to the Soviet invasion, when they fled the country, returning years later to see the destruction wrought by the Taliban. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, he makes us live through that destruction and, worse still, we view it through the eyes of women who, after living through horrible suffering under the thumb of the Mujahedeen, found that it only got worse (much, much — Dear God! worse) under the rule of the oppressive Taliban.

For those unfamiliar with Hosseini, he’s sort of the poor man’s Salman Rushdie. A Thousand Splendid Suns is his Midnight’s Children, only instead of India, Hosseini writes about Afghanistan, and instead of magical realism, Hosseini creates ridiculously mainstream fiction. Fortunately, at least, A Thousand Splendid Suns does not rely heavily on an extended metaphor, as did The Kite Runner, but Hoseinni is not above pat literary contrivances that, in some instances, cheapen his characters — when the narrative is not outright brutal, it does at times get mawkishly sentimental.

No matter — it’s still a powerful (and powerfully depressing) tale. Splendid Suns focuses first on Mariam — the illegitimate daughter of a rich Afghani father, who lives with her single-mother in a small shack in rural Afghanistan. Mariam is obsessed with her Baba, who makes weekly visits but otherwise hides his daughter in shame from his other wives and her half-siblings. Eventually, however, a series of melodramatic events ensue, as Mariam’s mother commits suicide and Mariam is married off to the book’s main villain, Rasheed, an old, brutally abusive shoemaker in Kabul who makes Mariam wear a burqua and stay indoors. He’s temperamental, rotten, passive aggressive, and, entirely irredemable — sort of the Afghani version of Robert DeNiro’s character in This Boy’s Life, only a lot more violent.

Laila is the daughter of an intellectual; she grows up in Kabul and is poised to rise above the limitations placed upon women in Afghanistan — that is until the civil war breaks out after the Soviets leave. Her parents are killed by an errant rocket and, at only 14, Laila — pregnant and orphaned and looking out for the good of her unborn daughter — is manipulated into marrying Rasheed after her boyfriend, Tariq, flees with his family to the Pakistani border.

Initially, Mariam and Laila are adversaries, but after Laila’s daughter is born, the two women bond over motherhood and quickly develop a sense of solidarity against Rasheed. The two become best friends, and both are forced to deal with not only their husband’s cruelty, but the viciousness of the Taliban who — in Hosseini’s tale — are every bit as sadistic as you can imagine. Under the Taliban’s rule, women in Afghanistan could not work, but this was hardly the most stringent limitation they faced. Physical brutality was a daily threat, as women faced severe beatings for such infractions as being caught outside without an escort, showing your face in public, speaking without being spoken to, making eye contact with men, and laughing in public. And, of course, women who were found guilty of adultery faced public stoning- to death. There is no shortage when it comes to savage thrashings in Hosseini’s book.

Splendid Suns is, primarily, about women and family and the lengths to which mothers will go for their children. But, through it all, Hosseini maintains a weird and powerful reverence for his homeland — not unlike Optimus Prime’s view of Earth: There’s good in it somewhere, though it’s difficult to locate. It’s a testament to both Hosseini and his characters that they are capable of finding anything whatsoever to be optimistic about, but his sense of hope, undeterred by the bitter political, economic and ideological struggles, is what propels the narrative forward: The hope that there is something underneath all the anguish, all the ugliness and suffering — the never-ending suffering — that is worth living for:

“This was back in March 1979, about nine months before the Soviets invaded. Some angry Heratis killed a few Soviet advisers, so the Soviets sent in tanks and helicopters and pounded this place. For three days, hamshira, they fired on the city. They collapsed buildings, destroyed one of the minarets, killed thousands of people. Thousands. I lost two sisters in those three days. One of them was twelve years old.” He taps the photo on his windshield. “That’s her.”

“I’m sorry,” Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on. Laila thinks of her own life and all that has happened to her, and she is astonished that she too has survived, that she is alive and sitting in this taxi listening to this man’s story.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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A Thousand Violent Thrashings

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini / Dustin Rowles

Books | July 9, 2007 | Comments ()



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