AAP Book Review
By Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
“And the Mountains Echoed,” is master storyteller Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel about life, love, and loss in contemporary Afghanistan. It depicts the wrenching story of how Abdullah lost his sister Pari and the subterranean void left by a family member torn away.
Dr. Hosseini’s phenomenally successful debut novel, “The Kite Runner,” and his sophomore work, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” portrayed dreadful brutality against women and children, a harsh but realistic fact of life under the Taliban. Mercifully, his latest book depicts very little graphic violence. Instead, the story explores the emotional violence wrought by deep love, raising themes of abandonment and more subtle forms of betrayal. Intriguingly, the novel implicitly questions whether memory and love are a gift or a curse.
The book opens with a fable. En route to a mysterious destination, Abdullah’s father Saboor tells Abdullah, age ten, and Pari, age three, the story of Baba Ayub, an impoverished peasant who has to choose which of his five children to surrender to an itinerant monster, the div. Baba Ayub sacrifices his youngest and dearest child, Qais. Qais is a child so full of energy the family hangs a bell around his neck to warn them when he sleepwalks. The div takes Qais away to what folklore describes as a terrible end. Baba Ayub compares his own fate to that of a man cutting off his finger to save his hand.
At this point in the storytelling, Pari, a toddler, falls asleep. Young Abdullah begs his father to continue the tale, which Saboor does.
Unable to function after this trauma, Baba Ayub journeys to the div’s fortress to confront him. The div then shares his secret with Baba Ayub. Pulling aside a curtain overlooking a lush garden below, the div reveals Qais, happily playing with other contented children. Qais has forgotten his family.
The div then offers Baba Ayub a choice. He may take back his son, never to return. Or, Baba Ayub may himself leave, never to return. Stricken, Baba Ayub leaves his son for what he believes will be a better life. On the way out, he drinks a potion the div offers him, and his memory of his journey, the div, and even Qais instantly dissipates.
Returning home, Baba Ayub finds peace in the loss of his memory of his stolen son. Some nights, he can hear in the distance the jingling of a bell, and he feels a sadness he cannot explain. Baba Ayub never sees Qais again. Abdullah’s father thus ends his fable, which is a metaphor for Hosseini’s book.
Abdullah is Baba Ayub, and Pari is Qais. The day after telling his children this story, Saboor sells Pari to a wealthy couple, Suleiman and Nila Wahdati.
The Wahdatis raise Pari as their own child, with every modern advantage so sorely lacking in Abdullah’s backward village. The Wahdatis brainwash young Pari to believe she is their biological child, and they pay off Saboor to renounce his claim to any contact with his daughter. Pari is raised in Paris after Nila abandons Suleiman when he suffers a stroke. As Pari ages, she develops a deformity of a permanently flexed pinkie finger.
Saboor in effect cuts off his pinkie finger to fend off imminent starvation, but his son cannot keep at bay the unyielding pain of his memory of Pari. Memory of a love lost, it seems, is a curse, and the Afghan mountains echo the loss throughout Abdullah’s life.
Abdullah names his own daughter Pari, and when he assures her “Everything will remind me of you,” he is clearly speaking as well of the lost sister for whom he named his only child. Only when he is old, stricken with Alzheimer’s, does the pain seem to abate. Like Baba Ayub, Abdullah finds peace in the absence of memory.
Like spokes reaching outwards in a wheel, mini stories of other characters’ lives connect to Abdullah and Pari’s central story.
Their stepmother Parwana has also lost a sister, Masooma, too young. As Masooma ends her own life, Parwana thinks she can hear her sister calling out to her, like Qais’s bell in the night. Parwana makes her choice. Hosseini writes:
“It would be her secret, one she would share with the mountains only. The question is whether it is a secret she can live with, and Parwana thinks she knows the answer. She has lived with secrets all her life.”
The mountains, however, keep no secrets. Unearthed secrets impact their relatives, house, and land. These remnants of Abdullah’s and Pari’s lives in Afghanistan decay with time, much like Abdullah’s failing memory.
The Wahdati’s manservant cares for Suleiman until the end of his days, realizing decades later his employer’s true reason for hiring him. After Suleiman dies, a Greek doctor makes his home in Pari’s tottering childhood house. The privileged son of a powerful gangster, who lives on land poached from Abdullah and Pari’s uncle, for a time befriends their uncle’s embittered young son. Privileged Afghan Americans return to the country to do good deeds, but leave them undone.
Throughout, characters must decide whether to sacrifice for relationships, or, as one of Hosseini’s creatures says, unmoor by “cutting loose the anchors that weighed us down.” Love and memory, which may be wonderful rewards, are more often depicted as burdens in this novel.
All these stories weave in and out of the story of Abdullah and Pari, and all these lives shed light on the Afghanistan the world sees emerging today. The journeys of other characters, sometimes melodramatic, are at turns distracting from the book’s emotional center. It is Abdullah and Pari’s story that holds the reader’s heart, right up until the poignant end. Its echo is bittersweet.