Several years ago, I asked a Pakistani writer of my acquaintance a question: What, in his opinion, makes contemporary Western literature distinctive? "Simple. It's about bored, tired people having sex," he said. The response was so immediate, delivered with such deadpan frankness as if the answer should have been obvious that I burst out laughing. For a joke, it was a surprisingly functional yardstick; shorthand for the opaque cynicism of the postmodern novel, so very different from the urgently political, emotionally riotous books coming out of the Middle East and South Asia.
However, the enormous popularity of Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini's novels hints at the advent of a new, more global, less culturally compartmentalized era of literature. While Hosseini writes in English his third language his profuse employment of tragedy, unlikely reunions and minor acts of God makes his work more readily identifiable within the South Asian literary tradition. Yet he has attracted legions of fans more accustomed to the "bored, tired people having sex" school of literary fiction, suggesting that we are living in a time when such distinctions are increasingly meaningless, and cynicism is finally going out of style.
And the Mountains Echoed is Hosseini's most ambitious work, spanning multiple generations and continents. It begins in a rural Afghan village in 1952 with a terrible choice: An impoverished laborer named Saboor ("patient" in Arabic and Pashto) must give up one of his children or watch the rest starve. Nila, a wealthy, Westernized poet from Kabul rendered sterile by a botched abortion, offers to become Saboor's patroness in exchange for his young daughter, setting off a chain of events that reshapes the lives of everyone involved. With her driver, Nabi, Saboor's brother-in-law, acting as a go-between, Nila unravels Saboor's family and then her own, absconding to Paris with the little girl when her husband (a closeted gay man) suffers a debilitating stroke.
This hectic emotional melange is handled with surprising dexterity. Every chapter is told from a different point of view, revealing the hidden anxieties and trials of each person touched by the fateful arrangement. Characters one might expect to be marginalized Saboor's silent, semiliterate wife; the insinuating driver, Nabi are given unexpected depth and purpose.
In what is perhaps the novel's strongest segment, Nabi gives an epistolary account of his decades of service to Nila's wheelchair-using husband, Suleiman, detailing an astonishing, emotionally complex relationship that amounts to a kind of platonic marriage.
It is within the confines of tradition-bound, mid-20th century Afghanistan that Hosseini is at his most innovative. There is a wonderful freshness to the emotional lives of his Afghan characters, all of whom, despite or perhaps because of their battles with poverty and shifting political realities, invent dynamic new ways to relate to one another. In Hosseini's novels, the struggle to survive does not crush personal identity; it frees it.
It is when Hosseini leaves Afghanistan for the theoretically freer air of 21st century America and France that he begins to stumble. As the narrative of And the Mountains Echoed evolves, moving into the modern day and drawing in a new generation of characters, it loses its urgency and begins to sermonize.
Hosseini is particularly hard on his own tribe: successful, Westernized Afghans living abroad. In one chapter, an Afghan American doctor goes to Kabul and meets a young girl mutilated in a family feud. After vowing to help her, he returns to the United States and is lulled by the formidable anesthetic of American consumerism, subsiding into his comfortable life and allowing the remodeling of his house to overtake his desire to help the injured girl. This is a well-observed little nugget of irony, but what happens next is bewildering: Six years pass in the space of a paragraph break, and the injured girl's story is given a hasty, unexplained resolution, as if the sole point of the chapter is to punish its main character for his apathy.
In the latter half of the book, there are too many jump-cuts like these, in which vital plot points are resolved offstage and alluded to in an almost casual, indifferent way, robbing them of much of their power. Hosseini's Western characters are curiously flat, as if the ease of their lives has deprived them of the ability to feel very much, or very deeply. While there are moments of powerful beauty, the multiple story lines don't quite fit together, and the book evolves from a novel into a series of vignettes.
However, fans of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns will not be disappointed: There is an assured, charismatic new maturity to Hosseini's voice. When he hits his stride, the results are electrifying.