Humankind keeps creating brutal situations, and fundamentalist Islam seems as oppressive and violent as any culture in history. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini brings us inside the hearts and minds of an unforgettable cast of characters native to the contemporary version of this society.
Afghanistan didn’t mean much to most of us until it became infamous as Osama Bin Laden’s base of operations in 2001. Even during its days as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, the focus was much more on the Soviets than the Afghans. I recall the T.V. special of Dan Rather consorting with the bearded, exotic warlords we armed and financed to overthrow the hated communists. I had no idea of the morality or mindsets of these hardy chieftains, who appeared relatively virtuous in their intent on throwing invaders out of their homeland. I did think it ironic that we were helping Arab guerrillas do to the Russians exactly what Asian guerrillas had so recently done to us. I also recall British Empire tales of the Khyber Pass (from Kipling, was it? Not sure.) Later, I had an inkling of the Taliban mentality from their destruction of the Buddhist cliff carvings. But that was about it.
After 9/11, of course, our level of education about Afghanistan and these dark ages theocrats has risen sharply. Hosseini, whose family is among the refugees from some of those terrible recent days, is in a unique position to offer us insight into the ordinary citizens living out their daily lives among the sturm und drang. In A Thousand Special Suns their experiences become almost too hard to take.
The novel follows the lives of two women who are in different ways thrall to the customs and laws of this completely male-dominated society. Even without the wars, Miriam and Laila would be hard put to achieve lives of dignity and self-fulfillment. The bloody horrors that surround them only exacerbate an already inhumane situation.
Miriam is raised in poverty, the outcast, bastard offspring of a wealthy, weak man and the maid he raped. Under pressure from other wives and family, he casts Miriam and her mother out of the house and into a hovel outside their city. He hasn’t the guts to stand up for the victims of his misdeeds, but he tantalizes his “natural” daughter with regular visits that lure her into thinking he will someday rescue her.
Laila is born into a loving household with a father who believes in education and sees to it that her academic prowess is nurtured. Her mother is a mental and emotional mess because her sons have been conscripted and sent to the front, but it seems that Laila has a future. It’s difficult to explain much more without giving up too much of the plot, but suffice to say that the two women’s lives intersect and intertwine in a manner that makes for powerful reading.
The weakness and strength of A Thousand Splendid Suns is that it’s a piece social protest literature in the tradition of The Jungle, Les Miserables, Grapes of Wrath, and Black Boy. Hosseini makes half-hearted attempts to show that these men see themselves as protecting rather than persecuting the women, that they are capable of moments of kindness. However, their rationales come off as the excuses they are, and we’re left with such a black-hat/white-hat situation that the book comes off as a morality tale, and to my mind falls short of literary wholeness. How I wish he had not chosen his sentimental syrup of a Hollywood ending. It is possible to project hope without washing over ugliness with rose water color, and Hosseini proved he could do it in his justly-acclaimed first novel The Kite Runner.
Such deficiencies, however, do not by any means ruin the book. Hosseini’s language is simple, yet he creates passages that are both move the story and can stand poetically alone:
Miriam lay on the couch, hands tucked between her knees, watched the whirlpool of snow twisting and spinning outside the window. She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sign heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all the sighs drifted up to the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below.
As a reminder of how women like us suffer, she’d said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.
If A Thousand Splendid Suns gives is sometimes difficult to take and does not quite reach the literary excellence of The Kite Runner, it gives us the experience of, not just the information about a world we cannot afford to ignore. And the often-splendid writing is a reward enough in itself for the read.