Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I read A Thousand Splendid Suns having just finished Kite Runner. I would like the opportunity to live life again (who wouldn’t?), if only to have a chance of reversing the order of this experience. I suspect that had I read A Thousand Splendid Suns first then none of the criticisms I raise about the book would even have been imagined, let alone expressed. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a wonderful book, a compelling and gut-wrenching story of two women, Mariam and Laila, who share a husband throughout the years of Afghanistan’s tragedy and turmoil. The fact that Khaled Hosseini can sustain expression, narrative, emotion and interest across two novels with ostensibly similar themes in the same territory is testament both to his supreme skill and the depth of the country’s despond.

Where Kite Runner tells the story of two boyhood friends approaching maturity, separating and reuniting, A Thousand Splendid Suns presents two women who are forced together by arrangement. As in Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini presents ethnic and social class differences as the givens of the story. Similarly, Afghanistan’s turbulent thirty years from the mid-1970s is more than a backdrop: it is the very substance of the idea, eventually revealed as the flesh on the story’s bones, the driving force of circumstance that creates the inevitability of the characters’ fate.

And this is why I wish I could read both books again in the different order, because too often in A Thousand Splendid Suns I felt I had been there before. The backdrop came just too much to the fore, in some parts so much so that I felt Mariam and Laila became puppets of its detail and demands.

That, I suppose, may also be part of the point. Whereas Kite Runner concentrated on male experience, A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on women and, given what happened in Afghanistan over those decades, it may be that the sense of subservience to the turn of events is the very essence of these women’s experience. Thus, it is almost true to say that they were not, themselves, protagonists. They were done unto.

Mariam and Laila differ in age, ethnicity, birthright and social class. They both, and for different reasons, finish up unhappily married to the same man, Rasheed, older than both combined, brutish, bigoted and sadistic. Rasheed is thus a symbol for the traditional male role without declaring himself as such. In Western terms, we read this “tradition” as misogyny, however, and it is here where I find the book’s weakness. In my opinion – for what it’s worth, and not much at that - A Thousand Splendid Suns would have been an even greater novel had Rasheed been cast as a more liberal figure and had he also suffered as a result of his own conflict with the requirements of changing times. But Khaled Hosseini made A Thousand Splendid Suns from the women’s stories and a more complex role for their husband might have deflected attention from them.

The two women had quite different experiences of youth, and demonstrate quite different capacities to relate to others and even to life, itself. But they have enough in common to need to act together, to need to form a relationship, less than an alliance, more than acquaintance. Pragmatism might have been easier, but the two women develop a real bond, a relationship that shares out the pain, disappointment and unfulfilled dreams of their marital confinement. There is tragedy aplenty and ultimate resolution of a kind.

And then it was the eventual similarity between Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns that prompted me to take my eye off the ball, to lose a little bit of interest in the story at mid-point. But if this is a criticism then it is an extremely minor one. As I suggested at the start, had I read the two books in the opposite sequence, I would probably have levelled my criticism differently. But having also said in a review of Kite Runner that I would not criticise the book for a lack of explicit position on the politics, I feel that in A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini ought to have said more about the status and role of women. Mariam and Laila live a tragedy, but they are also offered as icons for something bigger, which is women’s position in the society at large. In A Thousand Splendid Suns I thus wanted the author to offer explicit comment on the plight of his characters, at least some general comment, even a dose of polemic to merely label absurdity. Alternatively, as I stated earlier, he could have made Rasheed, their aging husband, a little more complex, a tad more endearing in order to offer a source of the social attitudes without the need to justify them.

But these are all minor points. A Thousand Splendid Suns is, in its own right, another supreme achievement by Khaled Hosseini and a further reminder to all of us that ideology imposed blindly can be a blunt and dangerous instrument.

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A Thousand Splendid Suns

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