Middle Eastern Sojourns – Part 2

It took me almost a month to get through And the Mountains Echoed. I spoke about my initial difficulties in my first installment of Middle Eastern Sojourns, only to be bombarded with even more hindrances soon after. Nevertheless, I persevered through sporadic reading and once I had finished the book, I developed a new appreciation for the brilliance of Khaled Hosseini’s storytelling – particularly this new style.

As I mentioned, reading And the Mountains Echoed was frustrating at first. I dived into the book expecting Hosseini’s classical style: a straight-forward story about the horrors and small victories of being an Afghan refugee. And the Mountains Echoed did not live up to my expectations and, in retrospect, I couldn’t be more satisfied with this fact.

The book opened with the tale of a hardworking, impoverished farmer named Baba Ayub whose favourite son was stolen by a legendary creature called a div. In his grief, Baba Ayub sank into a deep depression and many of the villagers thought he had gone mad. In this madness, the poor man decided to go on a long journey to find and kill the div for what he had done. He traveled long and hard and, when he found himself at the mouth of the div’s lair, he was not greeted with what he expected. The magical beast brought him in and told him that his son was not dead. He led him to a garden and showed him that his son was happy and thriving in the garden with other children. The div was not stealing children to eat them; it was stealing children of promise to give them better opportunities. As the div explained, Baba Ayub’s son was going to be educated in the garden and when he was grown, he would become a man of great influence in the world. The div then gave the grieving father a choice: he could withdraw his son from this garden and take him back to his life of poverty or he could leave him there and let him reach his full potential. Baba Ayub relented and made his way back to the village. Touched by his bravery, selflessness and love, the div blessed Baba Ayub with forgetfulness and he never remembered his son again.

From there, the story bounced from perspective to perspective as Hosseini told the tale of Abdulla and Pari – siblings separated in the strangest of ways. The writing style was off-putting at first as we learn of their fates directly and indirectly from a variety of sources throughout the chapters.  In my opinion, some of the perspectives were better written and more interesting than others and I was so confused by the seemingly awkward flow of some stories. I felt so discontented at one point, that I cheated on the book with another for a few days.

When I did pick the book up again and dedicated myself to my reading, I began to understand why Hosseini experimented with this style. In his previous books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini focused on individual stories to help us see the plights of Afghans from the ground level. This allowed for readers to empathize with the characters as we were able to create intimate attachments with them that roused our anger, happiness and rounded humanity.

And the Mountains Echoed does no such thing. Each main character only stays with the reader for a brief amount of time. Once they tell their tale, they are stolen away and the growing relationship we have with them is broken. We can only see them from a distance afterward where we hear of their fates and circumstances indirectly through reports from other characters as the chapters proceed. This allows Hosseini to do something brilliant. Rather than focusing on the intimate complexities of one character’s life, he creates a mosaic of human experience over nine chapters of exceptional storytelling. Each chapter presents a story similar to his first few novels, but together, they form a much bigger picture that shows the true scale of the refugee experience.

Doing this allows Hosseini to explore new themes and make more memorable comments about the human condition. In my interpretation, admire the way he shows that people who seem unconnected in time and space actually have overlapping lives even if they don’t know or remember how these overlaps occur. I love that he shows that the crisis in one seemingly isolated area still has an impact on people thousands of miles away because of refugee migration, and foreign aid infiltration. Hosseini points out what we often overlook and it has made me appreciate him more.

One of my favourite themes explored in the book is that of memory. Memory – whether saved, lost or revived – is one of the more subtle, but important themes in the book. I love how Hosseini plays with our own memory through the book and uses both memory and forgetfulness to make his most profound statements and themes. His exploration of mental health in the elderly is also very important in this book and I love the way he seamlessly integrated it into his book.

I also loved how Hosseini used repeating patterns to set the pace of the book. It reminded me a lot of Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement and how she showed how human experience tends to inevitably repeat itself unless someone changes their lifestyle to put an end to the spiral. Hosseini does something similar, but he does it with memory. I wish I could say more about it, but I don’t want to add even more spoilers to this piece.

And the Mountains Echoed was an acquired taste for me. I needed to take a few shots at it before I could really appreciate and thoroughly enjoy the story. It is not a book that you can just take at face value. You really need to take your time with it and savour the many themes and lessons Hosseini is trying to make you appreciate. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a heart-wrenching tale and wants to learn about the butterfly effect one country’s problems may have on the rest of the world. It was a brilliant read and I cannot wait to see what Hosseini comes up with next.

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