MY READING LIST, By Julio Gomes
One of the advantages of working in the newspaper business is that journalists can sometimes indulge their whims. One of my pastimes is sitting down with a good book, the contents of which dedicated readers of our paper know I sometimes share through a series we call My Reading List.
This installment is inspired by two unrelated events: Friday was the National Day of Honour, to mark the end of Canada’s long military mission in Afghanistan; and two weeks earlier our pages carried a book review of And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. Reviewer Caron E. Naysmith felt the novel “shows us what life in Afghanistan over the last 70 years has been like in a way that no documentary or non-fiction text could.”
I have not read And the Mountains Echoed, but I am familiar with Hosseini’s other works so I can readily believe what Caron says. Indeed, if one wants a glimpse into the complex life of Afghanis, beyond what the politicians say and what appears on nightly newscasts, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns are good places to start.
The Kite Runner (2003, Random House, 394 pages) is the tale of two boys. They are best friends but one is privileged and the other belongs to a lower caste. Their trials mirror the upheavals of their country until one flees to America, where he finds a new life. As he settles into a comfortable future, he has to confront a shame and try to make amends for it, to be “good again.”
There’s a lot of coincidence and the plot borders on hackneyed, but it’s a commendable debut effort that shines a light on a people and culture so incomprehensible to Westerners.
The followup is A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007, Viking Canada, 372 pages). If Kite Runner was a tale of fathers and sons, this is a tale of mothers and daughters. The story focuses on two women, Miriam and Laila, whose fates intersect in the household of the humble shoemaker Rasheed. The suffering they endure reflects that of their benighted land, under a monarchy, communism, Soviet invaders, the Taliban and then the U.S.-led post 9/11 invasion.
There is, again, plenty of heartache for these characters to deal with, but the story ends with the promise of a brighter future for the survivors.
Hosseini matures with this work and the psychology of Miriam and Laila seems quite convincing.
To be sure, both of these are works of fiction and have no bearing on the Canadian experience in that far-away land. For more factual accounts of experiences in modern Afghanistan, you might consider Under An Afghan Sky: A Memoir Of Captivity, by CBC reporter Mellissa Fung, and The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, by journalist Graeme Smith.
But what Hosseini, born and raised in Kabul but now lives in California, brings to Western audiences is not a studious examination of the dogmatic Taliban or fruitless military campaigns.
By pulling back the layer on what life is really like for the people who live in the cities or scratch out a meagre existence in the dusty provinces, Hosseini offers rare insight (though his compatriots may grouse that he’s painting a distorted and simplistic picture of their homeland for consumption of the casual book reading public). Sadly, and most compellingly, he also makes the case that this is a paternalistic culture where honour is stuck in centuries-old tradition and it’s not about to change anytime soon.
(Julio Gomes is managing editor of The Chronicle-Journal.)