The American comedian Stephen Colbert once joked that when he publicly criticised the novels of Khaled Hosseini, his front garden was invaded by angry members of women’s books groups. They were carrying flaming torches in one hand and bottles of white wine in the other.
It’s a joke that neatly sums up two significant facts about Hosseini’s status as a writer. First — and not to be underestimated, of course — it proves that he’s famous enough to make jokes about. But it also reminds us that his fame has been driven by ordinary book-lovers rather than literary professionals. His two previous novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, have sold around 38 million copies. Yet critics remain unsure about how seriously to treat his work as literature — often taking refuge in such traditionally ambiguous murmurs of appreciation as ‘master storyteller’.
The debate is unlikely to be cleared up by And the Mountains Echoed, where all the elements that made his name are again firmly in place. Sure enough, this is another thumping, family-based, Afghanistan-centred saga that features exile, regret and long-lost relatives across several decades. In fact, the biggest difference from Hosseini’s earlier books is simply that we get a lot more of all of them — to such an extent that at times it feels as if he has more narrative here than he knows what to do with. The nine chapters, each set in a different time and/or place, naturally contain plenty of material that’s relevant to the main plotlines — but also quite a lot that seems to be there largely for its own sake.
Chapter one, for example, is a bedtime story told by a rural Afghan father in 1952 about a poor farmer forced to give away one of his children to a horned giant. In chapter two, we realise why he chose this particular tale: the next day he sets off with son Abdullah and daughter Pari to Kabul, where, to Abdullah’s horror, he gives the girl away to a wealthy couple called the Wahdatis.
At this point, a naive reader might well think that the rest of the book will consist of Abdullah’s quest to get his beloved younger sister back. Instead, we now move to 1949 for a comprehensive account of the troubled relationship of another pair of local siblings, who then disappear from the novel almost completely.
But, as it turns out, Hosseini is barely clearing his throat. From there, he gives the same detailed treatment to, among others, two boyhood neighbours of the Wadhatis’ returning to Afghanistan in 2003 after decades in America; a Greek aid worker visiting his old mother back home; and a Mujahadeen drugs lord. Defying the old rule about not introducing important characters near the end of a novel, Hosseini gives the last chapter to someone we haven’t met before, who, in 2010, finally brings the opening quest back to centre stage.
Through all of this, the aspects of Hosseini’s work most responsible for that critical sniffiness are certainly present too: the broad-brush characterisation, the occasional descents into pure schlock, the less-than-startling aperçus. (‘If I’ve learned anything in Kabul,’ writes the Greek aid worker, ‘it is that human behaviour is messy and unpredictable.’) The author’s gainsayers might also notice that the various narrators all write like Khaled Hosseini.
And yet, I defy any critics less high-minded than, say, F. R. Leavis not to enjoy the sheer zest with which Hosseini goes about his business here — or admire the unhurried confidence with which he sweeps through the years. And if they do admit that resistance is futile and allow their heartstrings to be shamelessly tugged, they might spot something else as well: in its admittedly unsubtle way, the novel gives a thorough airing to the central question of whether it’s better to stay true to your roots or rise above them — a question that’s presumably pretty urgent for any Afghanistan-born author whose family moved to California in 1980 when he was a teenager and is now an American literary superstar.
In other words, I’m not sure how seriously to take And the Mountains Echoed as literature — but, let’s face it, Hosseini is a master storyteller.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 11 May 2013Tags: Afghanistan, Book review, Fiction, Kabul, Khaled Hosseini