AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead books, 2013)

khaled-hosseiniSeparation, both in physical or psychological, is one of the recurring themes of this absorbing novel . Khaled Hosseini shows how individuals are isolated from their past when they don’t remember important details or because they simply choose to forget.

The gulf between the lifestyles of Afghanistan and America are vividly detailed t highlight the stark contrast between Kabul with “a thousand tragedies per square mile” and the relative ease and comfort of life in the US. This is shown most tellingly in the character of Idris who left war-torn Afghanistan when he was in his early teens and subsequently becomes a successful doctor in California.

Returning to his homeland 20 years later at a time of uneasy peace makes him realise how protected he has been from having to confront the world’s “savagery, cruelty and boundless brutality”. This prompts feelings of guilt and annoyance with his children’s “blithe ignorance of the arbitrary genetic lottery that has granted them their privileged lives”. It is nevertheless significant that he chooses not to do anything that might impinge on his life of material comfort.

Many scenes of the novel function as modern-day equivalents of traditional fables and morality tales. These often present  harsh truths about human nature and much of the novel’s strength is down to the fact that Hosseini resists the temptation to tag on contrived happy endings.

Neither does he worry too much about sticking to a linear narrative. The story spans 58 years from 1952 to 2010 with many leaps back and forth in between, He has the same philosophy towards story telling as the wise Uncle Nabi who reasons : “A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later”.

If and when this book gets turned into a movie the complexity of the story’s  “boomerang parallels” will almost certainly be lost. thus robbing the tale of much of its resonance. What one character learns about life in Kabul could also stand for how the various lives of in the novel interconnect: “human behaviour is messy and unpredictable and unconcerned with convenient symmetries”.

Time and memory play such an important role that reducing events to an easy to follow sequence would take away the mystery and magic of the novel. So much depends on what the various characters know and forget; how they come to terms with what they remember of their past has a crucial impact on their state of mind.

The pivotal scene is in the opening chapter where Abdullah is separated from his beloved younger sister Pari and the sense of loss that follows this is fittingly one of the most beautifully described sequences: “But there was no forgetting. Pari hovered, unbidden at the edge of Abdullah’s vision everywhere he went. She was like the dust that clung to his shirt. She was in the silences that had become so frequent in the house, silences that welled up between their words, sometimes cold and hollow, sometimes pregnant with things that were unsaid, like a cloud filled with rain that never fell”.

We return to the ageing Pari’s at the end and her reflections sum up the essence of this sprawling yet moving novel : “It is important to know your roots. To know where you started as a person. If not your whole life seems unreal to you. Like a puzzle. Like you’ve missed the beginning of a story and now you are in the middle of it, trying to understand”.