Friday, July 04, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Review

I have already reviewed in these posts Khaled Hosseini's wonderful first novel Kite Runner at this link Kite Runner.  I was enthralled then by the power of this new writer to evoke the whole gamut of human emotions from happiness to sadness and from loneliness to love.  There seemed to be no emotion this marvellous writer could not catch in the web of words.  I wondered at the time where would that writer go from there, and I eagerly awaited his next novel.  The next book from his pen is an equally moving tour de force called A Thousand Splendid Suns (Bloomsbury 2007).  This book has sat on my shelf unopened for six months or more because quite simply I was distracted by other reading and research.  It was as if this reader was postponing a wonderful delight for the calmer moments of the holiday period so that he might savour with greater pleasure the insights of a wonderful writer and equally wonderful human being.

To my mind Hosseini has done a lot to give voice to the voiceless people and victims of the horrific Afghan wars.  I also believe that this writer has done more in these two novels to present to the world a richer and more liberal face of Islam than any purposeful apologia.  We in the West know little or nothing about the marvellous cultural and religious riches of Islamic culture.  Our view of this Middle Eastern culture has been coloured by the inevitable reports of suicide bombers taking out many lives in the name of Allah.  One hopes that it is writers like Hosseini who will be widely read, and that the results of his wonderfully human portrayal of life in Afghanistan during the horrific wars of occupation and later wars of internecine struggle will allow people in the West to have some appreciation for the long suffering peoples of the Middle East.  Islam does have a human face.  Bin Laden is not the only image available.

From the moment I took up A Thousand Splendid Suns I could not leave it down, carrying it with me over a week or so in order that I could read it at any given opportunity.  I found myself reading it in the car before or after a walk and also before and after an interview I had.  As I say, this book is an emotional tour de force which engages the reader across the whole gamut of emotions.  One is captivated by sadness and pity at one instance, by disbelief and anger at another, by sheer horror and almost physical sickness at another and occasionally by the peace and tranquillity of a profound nature that allows of no superficial or saccharine acceptance.  Peace and tranquillity in the bitter soil of Afghanistan is a hard-fought for one and one that simply cannot be taken for granted.

This book reminds me of Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.  In that book Doyle put himself into Paula's head and presented to us, the reading public, what it was like to be a victim of a husband who physically abused her.  Hosseini is doing the same here and he puts himself into the characters of two women protagonists - who outshine all the men we meet in this wonderful book - namely Mariam and Laila.  Hosseini, who is a widely read Afghani Doctor living in America, is scathing in his portrayal of the way women are treated under certain kinds of ultra-right-wing or conservative takes on Islam.  All through this book Mariam and Laila are punched and kicked like rag dolls by their husband - a husband not of their choosing but whom they have been forced to marry by traditional practices of match-making where literally the young girls are "sold" off to far older bachelors of questionable morals.  As a Western reader I found myself revolted by the level of wanton aggression towards women, and sometimes children, in this book.  That Hosseini is telling the truth we are never in any doubt.

However, this is a novel, not a documentary.  It is told like a story from the lips of a wonderfully astute and sensitive storyteller who knows the magic of words, and especially the effect created by the right word in the right place.  As a writer myself I envy him his style, the lightness of language that seems to trip off his tongue so inevitably.  Now I know what my erstwhile English teacher, Bartholomew Doyle, M.A. meant when he said all those years ago - "A true writer,  boys, is possessed of an inevitability of language."   Indeed, Hosseini has this gift in spades.

Writing is a craft which when practised flows with ease.  This novel starts with what I consider a wonderfully simple, direct and loaded sentence.  That sentence is:  "Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami." (Op. cit., 3)  Immediately we are in the mind of a five year old girl and we are introduced to a word we Westerners are ignorant of, and we read on to get the meaning, and on the following page it is translated as "bastard."  Mariam is a bastard child of a rich landlord, Jalil, who has two or three other official wives. Because of Nana's standing or background she cannot be married and hence has to be exiled with her daughter to a wooden and clay shack, called a kolba, out in a lonely wooded area.  The occasion of Nana's calling her own daughter a harami was when the poor little five year old Mariam dropped and broke the last piece of her mother's china.  This is a wonderful and clever scene because it forebodes much breaking and much evil in Mariam's future life.  A clever and intuitive writer realises all too well what he's doing in this simple instance which will become symbolic of the evil that shoots like a sharp and ruthless scimitar through the novel.

The first chapter ends with these sad and bitter words on the mouth of Nana, Mariam's neglected and ostracized mother: 

Nana said, "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter:  Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman.  Always.  You remember that, Mariam."  (Ibid., 7)

Mariam did go on to painfully learn this.  She suffers rejection after rejection, first at the hands of her own father Jalil who had always been kind to her but always on his own terms (for the sake of respectability only).  Then she has to live through her mother's suicide and her being matched at 15 years of age with a 45 year old bulldog of man called Rasheed who beats her often to within inches of her life.  One is left in no doubt but that our author excoriates the ultra-conservative traditions of Islam.  Behind it all shines through the wonderfully understated compassion of a more liberal take on Islam, the take of Laila's father and mother, namely Babi and Mammy.  Babi who had gone to Kabul University and had become a teacher.  He is widely read in all the great literature of Afghanistan and other Islamic classics outside the Koran.  

Babi knew most of Rumi's and Hafez's ghazals by heart.  He could speak at length about the struggle between Britain and czarist Russia over Afghanistan.  he knew the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, and could tell you that the distance between the earth and the sun was the same as going from Kabul to Ghazni one and a half million times. (Ibid., 99)

However, this gentle and learned Islam, this open and unforbidding Islam, does not get a look in.  In fact Babi and his wife, together with all their learned books are blown to bits by the rockets of the internecine struggle between different factions of the Mujahidin ( this word has many spellings in English - Mujahideen, mujahedeen, mujahedīn, mujahidīn, and mujaheddīn so take your pick). 

The way Hosseini manages to get into the heads of the two women Mariam and Laila is uncannily good.  We are one with them at all times.  We can feel their discomfort before the brutishness of Rasheed who happens to be the character who connects both.  Rasheed looks on a wife as his property who must be hidden behind her burqa (or burqua; also transliterated as burka).  This sleazy old devil gives Mariam her own room and only comes to her when he feels like sex.  He sees her merely as a servant in the house and as a baby-making machine.  Likewise, when he marries Laila, with more than a little dishonesty, he views her in the same manner.  One could argue that he is a little more considerate to Laila as she is far prettier than Mariam. However, they are both mere chattels which Rasheed  uses and abuses at whim.  The level of this abuse is revolting to say the least and had my stomach churning.  How one would like to kill such a monster as this.  I'm aware that this is a novel, but a traditional system which allows men such power is corrupt to the core to say the least.

In the novel there certainly are kindly people like the old Mullah Faizullah who teaches the young Mariam prayers and wisdom from the Koran. He is gentle, kind and considerate to Mariam.  Laila's father is a gentle considerate man also, but such characters are few and far between.

This novel is littered with the wreckage of war; blown up buildings and equally devastated human beings.  All through this novel one feels that the luxuries of culture are mere layers that can be torn away at whim to reveal nothing but hate and grief and more hate and grief.  The hate between rival factions and nations is palpable in this novel while innocent civilians are murdered and crippled in the crossfire - especially women and children.  It is no wonder Hosseini has dedicated this novel to the long-suffering women of Afghanistan.  Likewise, it is unsurprising that this wonderful writer was named a US goodwill envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency.  Please hit the following links for Hosseini's website where you will get more information on both the author and his work:- KH 

One gets the provenance of the title of the novel eventually on page 172, viz., poor Babi and Mammy with their daughter Laila are preparing at long last to leave the war-torn capital Kabul and Babi is looking forlornly at all his books which he will have to leave behind.  He tells Laila that one verse of a poem has been going around and around in his mind:

All day this poem about Kabul has been bouncing around in my head.  Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote it back in the seventeenth century, I think.  I used to know the whole poem, but all I can remember now is two lines: "One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,/ Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls."  (Ibid., 172)

The explosion that blows both her parents away and slightly injures Laila happens soon after this in the novel. We are in Laila's mind when this is happening and the description is mind-blowing.  Other wonderful descriptions are the heartless and perfunctory sex between Rasheed and his two wives; the thoughts of the women as they are being systematically brutalised by Rasheed and the overall feeling the reader gets of downright pity and sympathy and hopefully love for these poor neglected victims of horrific and unpitying war.  The description of the love scenes between Laila and her longtime friend and ultimate husband Tariq are beautifully natural and sublime in their presentation. 

I also loved the way Mariam and Laila eventually build up a good relationship between them - a silent and powerless unity against a brute until eventually...  I won't spoil the novel by saying what that eventuality is.  Also the childless Mariam builds a wonderful relationship with Laila's daughter Aziza (by Tariq, not Rasheed).  Here I agree thoroughly with Hosseini's description of love as connection

The list of forbidden things issued by the decree of the Taliban on page 248 is nothing short of misogyny.  I won't quote them here - I'll leave it to the reader to be disturbed by its sheer lack of all understanding and humanity.  One is left in no doubt that not alone are the Taliban absolute brutes but that they are also anarchists in many senses as they totally undermine culture - including their own.  We have a marvellously tender account of Babi bringing both Laila and Tariq, her eventual husband and longtime friend, to climb the famous Buddhas at Bamiyan (see pages 132 and following) and then later we are presented with the horrible destruction of such irreplaceable heritage at the hands of the same Taliban. (See pages 278 and following).

Mariam's death, which I will not go into here in case I spoil the novel, is told wonderfully.  Once again we are in her mind and can feel what it is like to be facing one's death.  All is beautifully and tenderly described.  How I wish I could write like that.

This is no mawkish novel as any reader will realise even after reading the very first sentence.  It is so full of realism  and indeed reality, far too real most of the time for anyone with a sensitive stomach.  I remember T.S. Eliot saying that "humankind cannot stand too much reality."  After reading this I realise that humankind has stood much reality and more than the closeted Mr Eliot, like any of us equally closeted Westerners, ever possible did or will.  I learned the same from the writings of Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.

It is a touching and healing moment for Laila, the writer and indeed the reader when she goes to visit the old house or kolba where her dead friend Mariam once lived as a child.  It is a very touching scene.  I must admit the tears began to roll down my cheeks.  I always know a good novel when this happens to me.  Something gives within me; some powerful energy released; a wonderful katharsis; a deep longing to be doing something to heal the brokenness of our sad world.

Sometimes beautiful Laila gets lost in her thoughts and is spirited away by the power of a wisdom that can only be bought in the wake of suffering that her little daughter gets worried and asks, "are you all right, mammy?"  I can hear the child's words in my own mind.  I'd ask the same question myself.  My eyes begin to cloud over with tears.  The ending is realistic, at once simple and profound. Tariq's and Laila's children are playing an alphabet game trying to come up with a name for the new baby which is on its way, and the end sentence is to die for.  I began by quoting the very first sentence.  I will finish here by quoting the last to round off this piece of writing:

But the game involves only male names.  Because, if it's a girl, Laila has already named her.

(Ibid., 367)

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