An Afghani ‘War And Peace’ That Promises To Be One of 2007’s Best Novels
Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is a genuine instant literary classic, and one destined to be remembered as one of 2007’s best novels. It should be compared favorably to such legendary Russian novels like “War and Peace” and “Doctor Zhivago”. And yet it is ironic to compare Hosseini’s latest novel to such classic works written by Tolstoy and Pasternak, especially in light of their country’s recent sordid history with Afghanistan, Hosseini’s country of birth. However, I believe that this comparison is most apt, since he joins them in recounting most vividly, an intense, horrific period in his homeland’s recent history, which shows no immediate prospect yet of a peaceful resolution. Hosseini also demonstrates that he is both a literary master of exquisite detail and dialogue which so easily reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s extraordinary literary skills; these are demonstrated most notably in his great early novel “Midnight’s Children”. Indeed Hosseini, like Rushdie, is yet another South Asian writer committed to writing great novels in the English language, demonstrating once more the Indian subcontinent’s rapid ascendancy as an important source of original first-rate English language literature. Fans of “The Kite Runner”, his critically acclaimed literary debut, will rejoice after reading his second novel, and share my observation that he has become one of our most compelling writers of contemporary fiction.
Afghanistan’s tumultuous, tragic recent history is told in riveting, exquisite detail by Hosseini, which is seen through the eyes of two extraordinary young intelligent women. We are introduced first to Mariam, the harami (bastard) daughter of wealthy Jalil Khan, a prominent Herat businessman, and his servant, Nana. And then later, but still early on in the novel, we will meet Laila, the youngest child of Babi and Fariba, both members of Kabul’s early 1970s educated middle class. Mariam’s heart-wrenching efforts in trying to gain her father’s acceptance as his legitimate daughter lead unexpectedly to personal tragedy and a new life as the wife of Rasheed, an elderly Kabul shoemaker. Against her own free-spirited will, and inquisitive nature, Mariam reluctantly submits to age-old Islamic Afghani customs even as she realizes that some fellow Afghani women - Khan’s legitimate daughters from his three wives - are acquiring a Western-oriented educated lifestyle in the provincial city of Herat. In Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, the relatively illiterate, young Mariam soon finds some solace in a brief, tenuous friendship with the older Fariba. Fariba’s husband Babi is a Kabul University-educated former teacher fully conversant in both traditional Afghani literature and Western civilization. When Kabul erupts into a bloody civil war soon after the fall of its Communist regime, Babi will teach their daughter Laila both modern Western mathematics and medieval Afghani poetry at home; its war-ravaged streets permanently ending her attendance at a local Western-oriented primary school.
Hosseini has cleverly compared and contrasted traditional Islamic Afghani customs with Western civilized values, especially with respect to women, through the unexpected metamorphosis of Laila’s character from a free-spirited, intelligent school girl to a tradition-bound Afghani bride, as Rasheed’s second wife, forced into this arrangement by both a romantic farewell tryst with Tariq, her childhood best friend and lover, and a personal tragedy brought on by a vicious civil war on the streets of Kabul between rival Afghani tribal warlords. Eventually she will find a soul mate and a friend in the older Mariam, both realizing that they’ve become virtual slaves to their older husband, who is all too willing to hide behind fundamentalist Islamic tradition as he makes their lives within his household a living embodiment of Hell.
Nearly fifty years of tumultuous, often bloody, Afghani history are described in graphic detail via Hosseini’s elegant, poetic prose. The 1973 coup d’etat against the Afghani monarchy, led by a member of the royal family, is followed five years later by another coup against the self-proclaimed president for life, leading inexorably to a Communist regime and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The relatively tranquil Soviet occupation, and then later, evacuation of Kabul is succeeded by the bloody civil war amongst warlords, and the subsequent rise and fall of the Taliban regime. All of these events are interwoven neatly by Hosseini into the tragic lives of his two heroines. And yet, as readers will find out eventually, not all is lost in the mutually entangled lives of torment and pain for these two women, since Hosseni does end his novel on a hopeful, indeed triumphant, note. A triumphant note that is most worthy for a novel which successfully carries through the ambitious literary scope of Hosseni’s fictionalized recent history of Afghanistan, much in the same fashion as his literary predecessors Tolstoy and Pasternak. A splendid 21st Century novel that is most worthy of comparison to “War and Peace” and “Doctor Zhivago”.
A Thousand Splendid Suns