A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

by Joshua Foust on 12/24/2007

I finished Khaled Hosseini’s latest weep-fest more than a week ago, and I’ve been contemplating what sort of treatment to give it. Like The Kite Runner, it is beautifully written even when it verges on the maudlin; also like The Kite Runner it creates a feeling of deep horror at what’s happened to Afghanistan over the past three decades. But at the same time, I kept thinking it was so clichéd to write about Afghanistan’s wretched abuse of women—which of course generated tremendous guilt—the same guilt when I read Night by Elie Wiesel after a semester of reading Holocaust literature (everything from Maus to The Emigrants) and thought, “is there anything new here?”

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled HosseiniThat is the danger of being a bit too subsumed in accounts of atrocity: it can feel banal after a point. There is an infinity of tragedy in these places, far too many who had been so utterly brutalized, broken into so many pieces, that the little piles of dust left over all looked alike. Hosseini manages to up the ante in a few places—such as when his first main woman, Mariam, is made to chew gravel as a punishment for making bland rice and being infertile—but in the end, many of the same tropes common to all tragedy literature creep in.

This is not necessarily a bad thing—perhaps it is the commonality of all man-made horror that could in some way be uniting—but it can make for a difficult read. When the grinding fear at random death, whether from a trip to the gas chambers or from one of Hekmatyar’s rockets arching into a quiet neighborhood of Kabul, all starts to feel the same, it can be difficult to separate, in a manner of speaking, the wheat and the chaff.

That being said, is a cliché-ridden account of the absolute atrocity of women worthless? I must definitively say, “no it is not.” Like his other book, Hosseini infuses the devastation he chronicles with a severe, serene beauty. Also like his other book, he focuses on the parent-child relationship—The Kite Runner was about the father-son bond, while A Thousand Splendid Suns is about the mother-daughter bond. Interestingly, both books seem to focus on the abusive and neglectful aspects of family life, with what we would describe as “love” reserved only after the fact, at the end of the elder’s life—not until the parents face their own deaths do they express tenderness or compassion toward the main characters.

And despite the many clichés and one-dimensional characters, Hosseini has an instinct for gripping storytelling that cannot be dismissed. His plot thankfully quickens from the cartoonish early chapters to a gripping account of life under the mujahideen battles—a mostly ignored seven years of history between the withdrawal of the Soviets and the vicious fighting between rival warlords, from Dostum to Massoud to Hekmatyar. An underreported aspect of life at this time was that Kabul had been turned into what can only be called a murderous rape party, in which the killing was indiscriminate, the women fair game whenever a marauding band of fighters rolled into a new neighborhood, and of course evil Rasheed—Mariam and Laila’s brutal husband—who would beat them mercilessly.

Indeed, Hosseini’s muted praise of Najibullah and not-so-muted critique of Massoud made some of the most interesting passages. Considering his more recent elevation as a kind of secular saint, such criticism, while undoubtedly correct (Massoud was responsible for a vicious massacre of ethnic Hazara in Kabul when Hisbi-i Wahdat switched to Hekmatyar’s side; he also rejected a coalition government Rabbani had negotiated with Hekmatyar), is also a surprising counterpoint to the Massoud hagiography that has blanketed Kabul.

Similarly, the praise of Dr. Najibullah, who is normally reviled as a communist turncoat more known for his primary role in the torture prisons as the head of KHAD than his commitment to women’s right, was surprising to see. No doubt in retrospect the political and thought crimes of the Soviets were tamer than the purity purges of the mujahideen or the beard patrols of the Taliban, but to praise the man for such courtesies was a bit surprising.

Regardless, this is a deeply moving book. Even the scenes that read like something out of Sweet November were compelling, if only from an empathetic reaction to the horrendous treatment Hosseini’s female characters received. Clichés or not, this is a story that needed telling in the accessible format Hosseini excels at—the slightly disconnected reports from Human Rights Watch or the State Department never seem to do justice to the sheer skull-crushing horror of Afghanistan in the 90s. It is a poor source of insight into the country, just as The Kite Runner was (Hosseini sacrifices exposition for emotion, which is a good trade in a work of fiction), but that shouldn’t detract from its worth.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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