Saga of Afghan Displacement
Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed—easily his best—follows its main characters from rural to urban, village to city, country to country, continent to continent as the writer addresses one of the most ubiquitous and disturbing issues of our time: displacement. True, for several of the characters in this richly textured and complex narrative, the transference from one geography to the next is by choice. Yet, since the background is Afghanistan, this displacement is not a matter of choice for many of the country’s peoples. Rather, it is loss in the most debilitating manner, loss of identity. As one of Hosseini’s characters states, referring to her father’s insistence that she learn Farsi when she was a child, “He said that if culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.”
No surprise, then, that there is a house in Kabul that is central to much of the narrative. Nabi works there (as cook and chauffeur) for a wealthy and childless Afghan couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati. As early as 1952, he brings his young nephew and niece, Abdullah and Pari, from Shadbagh to visit his employers, a journey that will alter their lives. The boy instinctively knows that the visit has changed his life, though it will be some time before he understands precisely how. When he looks at Mrs. Wahdati, he detects something alarming about her, “something deeply splintered.” Perhaps it is because of her remark, “It will be good to have a child around the house. A little noise, for a change. A little life.”
All the boy can think about is home. “He found himself thinking of the smoke of Parwana’s cooking, the kitchen shelf cluttered with her jars and mismatched plates and smudged pots. He missed the mattress he shared with Pari, though it was dirty, and the jumbles of springs forever threatened to poke through. He missed all of it. He had never before ached so badly for home.” Abdullah returns home, but shortly thereafter Pari is sold to Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati and the two are separated forever. Pari is not quite four years old; Abdullah is ten. Their mother died bearing Pari; their father needed the money. We are lead to conclude that such business transactions were not unusual.
Thus Pari begins her new life in the home in Kabul, pampered in a way she has never known before. After Mr. Wahdati has a stroke, Nila, takes Pari with her to Paris. As readers, we have figured out that there was something never quite right about the Wahdatis’ marriage. Nila is much younger than her husband, and there was something far from proper about her background. Years and years pass, and Nabi takes care of his employer, who becomes increasingly frail. The two of them rattle around in the large house in Kabul, while Nila and Pari remain in Paris, as the child grows up believing that Nila is her biological mother.
Afghanistan is controlled by the Russians, then the Taliban, finally the Americans. The wars are endless. So much time passes that minor characters in the story (also from Shadbagh) flee the country during bad times and return during better times. When Whadati dies, he leaves the house to Nabi, not simply because the younger man took care of him for so many years but also because he was in love with him. It was unspoken love, incapable of being expressed during the years described. Nabi may not even have realized the extent of Whadati’s affection until he inherits the house and a cache of the older man’s paintings—all of Nabi. That revelation makes it clear why Nila left her husband (in name only) years ago.
Perhaps to atone for the part he had to do with Mr. and Mrs. Whadati’s “purchase” of Pari all those years ago, when the Americans arrive in Afghanistan and a Greek doctor needs a place to live, Nabi lets him move into the house in Kabul at no charge for rent. Ironically, Nabi retreats into the shed he lived in many years earlier when he first lived in Kabul, before he moved into the house to take care of his employer. The house, thus, undergoes additional changes with its newest occupant, Markos, the Greek doctor.
What this review has intentionally failed to mention is how imaginatively And the Mountains Echoed is structured, looping back and forth in time, following generations from setting to setting (Afghanistan, Europe, the United States), recording years of pain and suffering and displacement. The story is full of surprises; the minor characters are minor only in the space devoted to them, since many of them (such as Dr. Markos) are as carefully drawn as the major ones. And, yes, the sorry also moves through generations (Pari’s daughter, for example, and Abdullah’s eventual family in California). I wasn’t taken by Hosseini’s The Kite Runner as were so many of his readers; A Thousand Splendid Suns didn’t interest me at all; but And the Mountains Echoed takes what was best in those two earlier novels, builds upon it, and leaves us with a story that will often take your breath away.
Khaled Hosseini: And the Mountains Echoed
Riverhead, 416 pp., $28.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.