There is a striking image in Nadeem Aslam's recent novel about the Allied invasion in Afghanistan that neatly captures the country's fate. The war-torn terrain in The Blind Man's Garden is studded by boot-prints left by the latest invading force. These offending imprints make vivid the fact that Afghanistan has been invaded and stamped upon for over three decades.
It has also largely been described and analysed by others, not by the people who are being stamped on. Perhaps that is why when Khaled Hosseini wrote his celebrated 2003 debut, The Kite Runner, it offered Western readers a glimpse into what it feels like to be born in Afghanistan amid such terrors, even if Hosseini was a Californian who left Kabul when he was 11 years old. Hosseini's bestseller led to a slow trickle of stories that revealed Afghanistan from the inside, including his most recent novel, And the Mountains Echoed, while Qais Akbar Omar, an Afghan journalist and carpet maker, makes this the mission of his memoir, A Fort of Nine Towers: "Over the past four decades, many books about Afghanistan have been written – mostly by foreigners – but none have explained how Afghanistan has held itself together".
So he explains it all to us, from how the Russian invasion came to his door when he was a nine-year-old, transforming his liberal, educated and wealthy world into a battleground, right up to the 2001 invasion. He conjures alarming images with a child's clarity: his father driving the family to safety as dead bodies sprawl by the roadside; a pit of decapitated human heads; a woman gang-raped; his father tied up and viciously bitten for the amusement of a warlord.
As the war with Russia ends, the civil war begins. His family home is taken over by the Mujahedin, the garden rigged with land mines, and he sees dogs ambling on the streets with human limbs hanging between their teeth. The horrors go on, but so does his family's extraordinary resilience. They travel the length of Afghanistan in search of refuge. His father pitches up at Bamyan and they live, for a time, in a cave behind one of the (later destroyed) Bamyan Buddhas. When the brake oil in the car runs out, Omar's father uses milk. They are incorrigible in their resourcefulness, and yet the reality of war cannot but diminish them. The only way Omar and the children around him can cope with war is by denying it. "Rockets fell by the hundreds… We pretended that it was fun... We pretended it was fireworks".
Among Omar's many achievements, his greatest is in capturing a child's world without undercutting the depth in his book. Omar acknowleges Hosseini at the end for "opening doors to agents and publishers", but a certain creative influence too can be discerned too. There are clear parallels with The Kite Runner: the boys' kite fights, the intense friendship between Omar and his cousin, Wakeel, and the sense of innocence shattered by the arrival of brute, corrupting war.
Yet the pitch and perspective is entirely different – perhaps both more exhilarating and unsettling because this is Omar's lived experience, and one that is far stranger than fiction, though written in surprisingly refined prose for a writer who taught himself English to become an interpreter for Coalition soldiers.
Omar's story is not ruptured by departure, as Hosseini's fiction is. Omar's family remain in Afghanistan. While Hosseini's third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, begins in Afghanistan, its real focus is on leaving - for America or for France - and the emotional cost of this departure. His sprawling family saga begins in 1952 with a folkloric tale about a father who gives away a favoured son so the child will not lead the same life of poverty. After this prelude, rendered in Hosseini's characteristically mythic tone, the book opens up to the central story of two siblings, Abdullah and his little sister, Pari, who are inseparable until Pari is sold to the wealthy Wahditi's in Kabul. Echoes of the children's tale at the start rumble, rather too heavy-handedly, across the fates of these characters.
There is something of the winning formula about this novel. It draws us in and then gives us the tried and tested. Ironically, its mythic style serves to cast Afghanistan in a static light at times, as if Hosseini were attempting to capture a lost childhood in aspic. Just as in the case of the quasi-brothers, Amir and Hassan, in The Kite Runner, there are siblings or quasi-siblings here too who embody both the strength of love felt between children, and the moment of snatched innocence that destroys their lives. There is also the master-servant-friend dynamic of The Kite Runner, though it comes in the more daring form of a homosexual subplot, with Mr Wahditi secretly hankering after his chauffeur, Nabi.
Hosseini's story is vast in its perspective, roving from one character to the next, with a filmic quality that seems primed for easy adaptation (as was the case for The Kite Runner). The changing points of view and leaps in time can confuse and confine, leaving characters clearly defined but lacking depth. Decades gallop by and it is as if the story of these interconnected, cross -enerational lives will simply go on echoing the original crime of Abdullah and Pari's separation.
Hosseini's subtler ideas are the most interesting. The book quietly interrogates what parents do to their children, and the meanings they demand from them. As Pari says of her adoptive mother, "All my life, she gave me a shovel and said, 'Fill these holes inside of me, Pari'."
He asks questions of home and belonging too. When does an immigrant cease to belong to the country he or she left behind? The minor American Afghan characters of Idris and Timur return to Kabul to reclaim their father's homes and find that they are foreigners there now. This notion of insider-outsider identity deserves further probing but Hosseini moves swiftly on in his quest for plot and pace.
While the vigour of Hosseini's storytelling is ample and beguiling, once the last page is read, it melts into paper-thin fantasy, rather like a children's story. Omar's book, by contrast, does nothing of the sort.
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