[Published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 16 August 2007]
This novel is a quick, easy read and introduces readers to images and lives from Afghanistan not easily found in mainstream media. In this way it reminded me of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), a novel set among the desperately poor of India and a novel far more accessible than Salman Rushdie’s over-written Midnight’s Children. In economic, realist prose, Mistry nevertheless achieves a rich and evocative texture.
Hosseini’s book is not, however, the Dickens-inspired prose of Mistry. Stylistically, it approaches that quite bearable lightness of reading that I have found also in Naghuib Mahfouz’s The Harafish (1994), a novel of epic proportions that traces the fortunes of a pre-modern Egyptian clan whose founding chief gave protection to the poor (the ‘harafish’). The high pace of the Mafhouz novel, and its airy prose, give to it a fable-like tone and it is the tool by which the reader is enticed and bewitched.
A Thousand Splendid Suns provides such initial attraction. Its early parts, dealing with the childhood of Mariam, one of the protagonists, has a similar strange and fable-like sense and tone. The book draws one in into a social milieu that is at once, for this reader, strange and familiar. A further initial attraction is the way in which the novel tries its best to undermine the idea that gender oppression in Afghanistan is simply or only a matter of religion.
The novel mainly follows the plight of two women, first Mariam and then Laila, as the latter finds a new life with Mariam (and as second wife to Mariam’s husband, Rasheed). But we encounter Mariam first as a young girl who starts understanding her own position in the world by constantly being reminded by her bitter mother that she, Mariam, is harami. Local SA readers may know that in Arabic this word means ‘forbidden’ and Mariam is harami because she was born out of wedlock. Nana, her mother, used to work for a local businessman in Herat, Jalil, and fell pregnant by him.
Jalil already has three wives and several children. But, of course, it is mainly because of their haram activities that Nana is banished from the household. Jalil builds a hut for her on the outskirts of Herat, where Mariam will be born. While Nana constantly reminds Mariam about her illegitimate status and about Jalil’s disregard for them because of this, Mariam herself counts the days to his weekly visits. She clearly loves her father, who dotes on her, and one gets a sense that things are not quite what they seem.
The characters, in other words, create divided loyalties in the reader. While Nana is embittered because of the ‘shame’ and subsequent banishment, she is actually gentle when Jalil is around and herself dotes on her daughter. The reader cannot help but develop a sympathy for her: impregnated, then tossed away, her bitterness is justified.
But it is also difficult to imagine Jalil the doting father being so heartless as to have tossed out Nana and Mariam under the requirements of social codes. In this way, Hosseini initially keeps the reader intrigued via such divided loyalties and avoids stereotypical villains operating under Islamic mores (Jalil) or absolute do-gooders who are the female victims (Nana). This intrigue – not knowing whose side of the story to believe or trust – together with the sparse narrative style, are what reminded me of Mahfouz’s The Harafish. The intrigue, alas, dissolves when the novel takes a turn.
After Nana’s unsuspected death, Jalil unceremoniously marries off the 15-year old Mariam to Rasheed, a grimy shoemaker and widower from Kabul and 30 years older than Mariam. He’s not rich, but neither is he absolutely poor – he counts businessmen and politicians as his clientele.
Rasheed immediately appears the biggest villain, banishing Mariam to the upstairs when male visitors arrive and demanding she wears a burqa when in public. Yet Rasheed’s gendered oppression of Mariam cannot be seen in terms of Islam. Not fasting during Ramadaan, Rasheed can hardly have recourse to Islamic principles. In fact, he expresses some hope that their lives may become better following the communist takeover in 1978. Through such contradictions, Hosseini subtly suggests that patriarchy may have roots also in places other than religion.
The relationship between Rasheed and Mariam gradually softens and may even at times reach a warm gentleness. Eventually, however, Rasheed hardens into a full-blown villain when it becomes clear that Mariam cannot bear children.
The novel then awkwardly introduces Laila. She is the daughter of neighbours whom Rasheed doesn’t care for because her father is an intellectual (teacher). Laila’s parents die, however, during the faction fighting that ensues after the Soviet withdrawal of 1989. Rasheed sees this as a great opportunity to acquire another, even younger wife. And so then the novel attempts to weave Mariam and Leila’s lives, alternating with chapters from each of their perspectives.
But the novel loses energy and soon strains, quite naively, towards a note of hope for contemporary Afghanistan. And this is perhaps my biggest problem with the novel: politics. While it is clearly popular fiction, the novel is constantly seeking a political weight and depth, but falls just short of naive humanist propaganda.
It does not shy away from politics. A large part of the novel is indeed set during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. While a character here and there may have something good to say about this (Laila’s father is glad that the communists and their Soviet masters promote secularism and women’s rights), the novel constantly scores points against the Soviets, but is deadly quiet about the simultaneous role of the USA in bolstering and arming the mujahideen (holy warriors). And it is the mujahideen who, through faction fighting, created the most chaos in Afghanistan, a crucible which gave rise to the Taliban.