Sunday, June 03, 2007

On Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns

A slightly different version of this piece appears today in the Observer.

The fictions of Khaled Hosseini portray not just a world out of joint—an Afghanistan racked first by conflict with the Soviets and then a civil war—but also, within it, families where unnatural formations are prevalent and guilty secrets harboured. This surfeit of disorder results in extravagant narratives that are always ticking away like timebombs. Disaster is never more than an arm's length away in Hosseini's work, as guns and bombs on the streets, and an insensitive and authoritarian patriarchal culture inside the home, create an atmosphere "of abasement, of degradation and despair".

While Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, rehashes some of the conflict-generation formulas of his debut novel, the bestselling The Kite Runner, the good news is that the writing is more assured, as is some of the characterization, and this is surely a praiseworthy thing. The Kite Runner was a schmaltzy, even insincere, story of two boyhood companions, master and servant, who are actually half-brothers. The book had plot turns you could see coming a mile away, and dull, flat writing that never rose much higher than the base ground of cliché. Indeed, at one point the grown-up narrator, now a successful novelist, even mounts an intriguing defence of clichés—"Because, often, they're dead-on".

The formation of a pair of boys overseen by a powerful father-figure of The Kite Runner is replaced, in A Thousand Splendid Suns, by a pair of striking women in thrall to a sinister husband. Mariam is an illegitimate child, a harami, who is married off when still a teenager to an elderly shoemaker, Rasheed. Mariam is unable bear Rasheed the son he so desperately wants, and is continuously mocked and beaten by him. She recalls her embittered mother's words: "Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman".

When the fighting in Kabul between the forces of rival warlords sparks off an exodus of civilians, Rasheed gives refuge to the attractive teenager Laila, and presses her to marry him. Laila agrees, but only because she bears in her womb the child of her lover, Tariq, destined to become another harami unless she acquiesces. Mariam is relegated to second-best status not just by Rasheed but also by the narrative, which often depicts her from Laila's point of view.

Hosseini is at his best in some of his descriptions of landscape—the secluded pastoral retreat where Mariam grows in the company of her mother, a visit made by Laila and Tariq to the giant Bamiyan Buddhas later blown up by the Taliban - and his account of the developing relationship of the two wives, which begins with hostility and slowly blossoms into a concord. Some of Hosseini's characters, like the demonic Rasheed, still feel more like obstacle courses that must be overcome by his battling protagonists. He still italicizes far too many sentences, and his chapter endings are like an archive of narrative alarm bells. But this is a modestly good and fairly readable work by an improving writer.

4 comments:

Amitava Kumar said...

"His chapter endings are like an archive of narrative alarm bells."

No, boss, I disagree. Nothing as dense as an archive in Mr Hosseini's writing. If we indeed use this simile, each chapter ending is like a tinny alarm bell going off at the hour it was set at the very beginning of the book.

(Having said that, I'm much in agreement with the modest praise. What I'd have appreciated more, however, is a quick analysis of the amazing popularity.)

Chandrahas said...

Dear Amitava - Before we train our guns we must first, I think, we must settle on what kind of alarm bells we are talking about. I was actually thinking of the fire-engine variety, which leads to one sort of meaning (too much crisis) and I think you are talking of the alarm-clock variety, which is another good metaphor but leading to a different meaning (too much contrivance).

I think both charges may be true, in which case we have just inaugurated the Alarm Bell school of criticism, which even with its severe limitations offers a two-pronged approach, fully one prong more than Deconstruction, New Historicism, and Neo-Marxism.

Let me waste no time in offering you my congratulations, O brother in arms and bells! Now when are you putting together The Alarm Bell Reader for your students?

As for an analysis of the amazing popularity of Hosseini - why, I fully agree with all those reasons you advanced the last time you were here. Only I forgot to take notes, and so must confess that I don't want to take any chances with repeating them here (as, for all we know, even Plato's writing up of what Socrates said is all misrepresentation). You just write up those points on your blog tomorrow, and I'll be the first one to leave a comment saying I couldn't agree more - I might even add some remarks original to me.

Scott Bohlinger said...

Chandrahas bhai, I agree with some of your cristicisms at the technical level, but I think that misses point of Hosseini's craft. Hosseini is the most fetted writer s in the US these days, with more than a few jokes revolving around an archetypal character who has actually not managed to read "The Kite Runner" (picture an American Mulla Nasruddin). Hosseini, I think, proves that Americans are simply fans of Bollywood by any other name.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is a simple, classic story that serves first and foremost as a catalyst to bring the Afghan experience to the consciousness of the West without an excess of either guilt or happy endings. The simplistic portrayal of Rashid doesn't make since at a literary level, but he really is a great represent of many men (both good and bad) whom I've met in Afghanistan, and, at the end of the day, his motives, failings and inconsistencies are well represented. We don't know a lot about him--a problem in a society that is often over secretive. We find out that his son drowned because Rashid was drunk, but reading between the lines this could be the result of him not having an outlet to mourn the death of his wife, which is a very accute cultural phenomenon.

Portugal said...

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a straightforward, riveting, and at times unflinching fortrayal of the grim lives some Afghani women lead. For these characters, disappointment, pain, and heartache are around every corner. I finished the book knowing more about the recent political history of Afghanistan and appreciating all the blessings I have by the providence of where I was born. This book strongly reminded me of Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See in that it exposes the very private world of women living in a rigid, oppressive society. Husseini gives a voice to those who may never have felt worthy to be heard.