A review of And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In town recently for a probing interview conducted by Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel, best-selling novelist Khaled Hosseini spoke about his craft much as any storyteller of our pre-literate past might have done.
“I just start writing and hope something happens,” he said. The interview took place June 23, 2013, before a capacity crowd in the chapel at the capacious First Congregational Church of Berkeley under the auspices of Berkeley Arts & Letters.
Hosseini starts with characters he cares about and sets out to tell their stories. “You should be really excited about writing when you get up in the morning,” he insisted. If he loses interest in the characters, he’ll throw out as many as ten chapters and start all over again.
“I spend years with these characters,” Hosseini explained. “There’s an internal dialogue that goes on” as they develop in surprising ways.
And the Mountains Echoed began as a “linear novel” about a young brother and sister, Abdullah and Pari, born in an Afghan village in the late 1940s. However, as Hosseini started to write, he began to wonder how some of the minor characters that had cropped up would fit into the narrative. For example, the children’s uncle Nabi “became central to the story” as the writing proceeded, and Nabi’s connection to a Greek doctor working for an NGO in Kabul subsequently took the story to a small Greek island as the doctor, too, emerged as a major character.
The result of Hosseini’s organic writing process is a novel that is at once intensely personal and broad in scope — a story that captures a half-century slice of Afghan history as it relates the lives of Abdullah, Pari, and their family from the peaceful era of the mid-20th Century in Afghanistan to the present day in the South Bay below San Francisco. Compared to Hosseini’s previous novels, which verged on tear-jerker melodrama despite (or perhaps because of?) their universal appeal, And the Mountains Echoed is more ambitious, more nuanced, more insightful, and engages Hosseini himself far more.
This book firmly establishes Khaled Hosseini as one of the finest novelists working today. He belongs among that handful of post-colonial writers — including V. S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer — who were born within cultures unfamiliar to “the West” and serve as our interpreters of the intercultural experience.
Khaled Hosseini, now 48, has lived in the United States since the age of 15, when his family secured political asylum and moved to San Jose. (A Communist coup had just toppled the Afghan King, and Hosseini and his family were fortunate to be living in Paris, where his father was a diplomat.) A physician, Hosseini practiced medicine in the South Bay for a decade until shortly after the runaway success of his first novel, The Kite Runner, persuaded him to turn to full-time writing. Collectively, his three novels — A Thousand Splendid Suns was the second — have sold more than 38 million copies.
Late in her interview, Dinkelspiel asked the author what plans he had for his next book. “I have a few ideas,” Hosseini said, “but I really won’t know what will happen until I sit down at the keyboard.”