A Thousand Tragedies

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead. 416p $28.95

Khaled Hosseini is a bestselling author whose novels focus on Afghanistan’s political, religious, social and cultural upheaval. If his aim is to evoke sympathy for the tortured lives of Afghans, he undoubtedly succeeds.

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In his highly successful debut novel, The Kite-Runner (2004), Hosseini focused on the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Taliban takeover as seen through the lives of two half-brothers—one poor and one rich. Hosseini’s somewhat disappointing second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), features a clash between Western ways and Muslim fundamentalism as told through two Afghan women who suffer under the iron fist of their husbands. Now in his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, Hosseini expands his scope. He covers nearly 60 years of Afghan turmoil as depicted in the lives of a dozen or more people who have been damaged—both physically and emotionally—by war and terrorism.

Hosseini begins his latest with a spin-off of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. But in Hosseini’s version, the angel does not intervene. Abdullah (aka Abe) loses his beloved sister whom he has cared for since their mother died in childbirth. His family, friends and neighbors are devastated as 4-year-old Pari is sold to save her family from starvation and to give her a chance for a better life. The action sets off several interlocking narratives—all connected to the troubles besieging the Afghan people in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Beginning in 1952 and ending in 2010, this ambitious novel moves back and forth in time to tell several disparate stories. Each chapter spotlights one character, who tries to come to terms with daily life in Afghanistan. They include Pari, her father, her brother, stepmother, aunt, adoptive mother, uncle, niece, neighbors in Shadbagh and the tenant who years later rents her house in Kabul.

Too young to remember her past, Pari spends a year living with her wealthy adoptive parents, Suleiman and Nila Wahdate, in Kabul. Later she moves to Paris where she grows up as a privileged daughter. She believes that Nila, a talented but emotionally troubled poet, is her birth mother, although the girl never quite feels a daughterly connection to her. As Pari sees it, something is missing in her life.

Years later, when she receives a phone call from Markos Varvaris, a plastic surgeon, she begins to learn what is missing and why. A letter from her uncle confirms her suspicions about her past. But at this time, Pari is in her 60s and the mother of three grown children. She also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, which may prevent her from taking the next step and reconnecting with her family—wherever they are. Meanwhile, circumstances in Afghanistan have worsened in the years since Pari left Kabul. Her brother has moved to America; her adoptive father has died; her birth family has lost the farm to the Taliban; terrorism is rampant on the streets.

Hosseini describes those conditions through the perceptions of several characters but primarily through Idris Bashiri, a former neighbor of the Wahdati’s who calls Kabul a city of a thousand tragedies per square mile. If there is one theme holding this book together, that is it. Every page brings home that statement as Hosseini provides graphic (perhaps too graphic) examples of the savagery committed in the name of religious principle.

Idris encounters more ugliness than he can tolerate. An Afghan-American physician who lives in California, he visits patients in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital and is moved by their suffering—especially that of Roshana. Called Roshi, the 9-year-old girl is the only member of her family to survive an attack by her uncle, who in poverty and frustration decapitates Roshi’s mother, father, sisters and brother. With her brain visible from a deep wound across her skull, Roshi will need an operation if she is to survive. But with the dire conditions in war-torn Afghanistan, no one has the money.

Idris promises to fund the operation on his return to the states. But after coming home, he becomes engrossed with his job and family. Will he forget Roshi’s suffering? Will he shut out the voice of his conscience and, like the rich young man in the Gospel, choose material goods as opposed to helping the poor? (Mk 10:17-31).

While the answers may be predictable, the questions are central to the novel and to Hosseini’s thinking. Also an Afghan-American physician, Hosseini is devoted to his homeland. He has established a foundation to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and works as a goodwill envoy for the United Nations. Yet Hosseini aims to be more than just a promoter of charitable causes, as laudable as his are. And, as can be seen in this thoroughly engaging and compelling story, he is.

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