Monday, February 8, 2010

#8 A Thousand Splendid Suns

Khaled Hosseini is trying to do something in A Thousand Splendid Suns, through its 415 pages, and I can’t quite tell what it is. It seems like part of it is a history lesson (think Forrest Gump or another book I’ve read by Anthony Grooms called Bombingham), giving us dates, times, and people that manage to remain significant. Another part is trying to tell us the story of two women, one raised poor, another raised with a high value on intellect, both of whom marry the same man. Yet there is also the story of feminine oppression in Afghanistan, particularly by the Taliban and said husband of the “old school” of thinking. Then again he has yet another, the story of war…and how you survive it. I think it was this fact that made A Thousand Splendid Suns kind of boring for me to read. Every time the book got to a point where I was reading at a fast pace it would suddenly change topics, or lose the voice it had completely.

I say history lesson because the book begins in 1964 and continues all the way to April of 2003. It discusses the aspects of politics, regime changes, and the overall history of Afghanistan at the time, particularly in the city of Kabul. However it does, at some points, get a little specific. I don’t know the necessity of mentioning every military leader. Passing quotes like this one, "...the brooding, charismatic Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. Mammy had nailed up a poster of him in her room,” were alright because it doesn’t go into detail, it is a passing glance. A half page with just a list of names…is a little much. Sometimes the history aspect really caught my attention, like the giant Buddha’s that were destroyed by the Taliban. In particular I was looking forward to getting the perspective of 9/11, instead, I was treated with this, "The TV is tuned to BBC. On the screen is a building, a tower, black smoke billowing from its top floors. Tariq says something to Sayeed and Sayeed is in midreply when a plane appears from the corner of the screen. It crashes into the adjacent tower, exploding into a fireball that dwarfs any ball of fire that Laila has ever seen. A collective yelp rises from everyone in the lobby." That was it. He talked a little more about how they felt the coming of Bush would be, but nothing that significant. It was almost like 9/11 happened, then was over. I was more interested in hearing an actual perspective. Did they find it grotesque? Did they not give a fuck? Were there actual celebrations in the streets in some places? Things like that. When given a history lesson…I’d like to know the reactions, not just the facts. For example, “Mariam awoke on the morning of September 27 [way before 9/11] to the sound of shouting and whistling, firecrackers and music. She ran to the living room, found Laila already at the window, Aziza mounted on her shoulders. Laila turned and smiled. 'The Taliban are here,' she said." That caught me off guard. I never expected them to look forward to the Taliban. To be excited by their arrival. Indeed that excitement died very, very quickly…but I’ll get to that later.

The story of the two women is simple. You have Mariam, born a bastard to a rich merchant and his servant. She was raised knowing her father but not being included into his world as she was a disgrace. Her mother was spiteful and mean and treated her almost as a burden. Her education consisted primarily of learning the Koran. After her mothers death she lives in her fathers house for only a little bit of time before she is run out by his wives. "Now he is a little older than you," Afsoon chimed in. "But he can't be more than...forty. Forty-five at the most...What are you, fifteen? That's a good solid marrying age for a girl." The man is Rasheed and he moves her to Kabul, from there life only gets worse for her. "In this most essential way, she had failed him-seven times she had failed him-and now she was nothing but a burden to him." That was seven miscarriages. After awhile her husband marries again, this time to Laila. Now Laila grows up entirely different from Mariam yet only down the street from where Mariam lives with her husband. Her father is a teacher and therefore she is raised to be educated. She is a rarity as well, blonde hair and green eyes. When war hits her life gets turned upside down, first her friends begin to die, then the love of her life, Tariq, leaves with his family, until finally her parents are killed and she is forced, out of necessity, to marry Rasheed. “What of it? What? She’s too young, you think? She’s fourteen. Hardly a child. You were fifteen remember? My mother was fourteen when she had me. Thirteen when she married.” She will have two children, Aziza and Zalmai (whom she gives birth to by cesarean, with no pain killers), before she too begins being beaten by the pedophile and oppressive Rasheed (I say pedophile by the fact that he is around 60 when he marries the 14 year old Laila, and…well…wait till you read the sex scenes). The story really picks up here, once the beatings of Laila begin. My problem with the female aspect of the story is how they are written, I know Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets says “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” However, I think it is a never ending question. How can a man write women well? I think Hosseini tries, but fails for the most part. There is just something…off. At times where I expect Mariam or Laila to have more of an emotional internal or external reaction they don’t. When I expect the raised weaker Laila to crumble she fights, when I want to see the tough Mariam fight she crumbles. I don’t know…they almost appear like men, with the occasional heartfelt expression. Even some circumstances where I wouldn’t expect a mother to lie down and take it, they do, yet when they should, they don’t. Does that make any sense? Am I making any sense? Let’s just say I can’t find the women to be genuine. By far the most interesting part of the story to me though was the description and detail of the oppression of the women.

"If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home. You will not, under any circumstances, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten. Cosmetics are forbidden. Jewelry is forbidden. You will not wear charming clothes. You will not speak unless spoken to. You will not make eye contact with men. You will not laugh in public. If you do you will be beaten. You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger. Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately. Women are forbidden from working. If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death."
Those are the rules of the Taliban for women. Now…the story begins with an oppression of women. First you have the servant mother of Mariam who is hidden away so as to not bring shame. Rasheed has Mariam wear a burqa long before the Taliban comes along because, as he puts it, he wants her to be his own little treasure. Yet in reality he is just a fucking old fashioned prick. With the government that is in place when Laila is born she is able to go to school and get educated, women walk around much like American women (in similar attire), that goes bye bye with the Taliban and then you have the rules you see above. This, at one point happens to Mariam, "His powerful hand clasped her jaw. He shoved two fingers into her mouth and pried it open, then forced the cold, hard pebbles into it. Mariam struggled against him, mumbling, but he kept pushing the pebbles in, his upper lip curled in a sneer. 'Now chew,' he said...Then he was gone, leaving Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars." Why you ask? Because he didn’t like the way the rice she made tasted. When Mariam is pregnant for the first time Rasheed responds with, "If it's a girl," Rasheed said, "and it isn't, but, if it is a girl, then you can choose whatever name you want." In fact, when Aziza is born he pretty much ignores the child completely and considers it a nuisance. Never even calling her by name. Women are beaten, kicked around, and verbally destroyed. When they try to run away at one point, you can imagine what happens…never mind, you probably can’t imagine what happens. If that wasn’t bad there is also the description of the war itself.

The story is brutal…not like Cormac McCarthy brutal anyway. Sometimes when you feel like Hosseini can go that little extra mile to make it leave a lasting impression on you, to really make you feel the pain and anguish, he doesn’t. Really…he does that a lot. Even with the passing of Laila’s parents or friends, the death of Mariams mother, you are kind of left just going “Meh.” In a passing comment he mentions how they find the foot of one of Lailas friends on the roof of a house weeks after she is caught in an explosion…just a passing comment. I think the reason a lot of Americans (or any country for that matter that has never experience urban warfare) don’t really understand war is because we’ve never had to be “in” war. Sure, our country has fought in wars, but have we ever had to actually wake up to the sound of shelling? Hosseini manages to capture this every once in awhile, "At night, Laila lay in bed and watched the sudden white flashes reflected in her window. She listened to the rattling of automatic gunfire and counted the rockets whining overhead as the house shook and flakes of plaster rained down on her from the ceiling. Some nights, when the light of rocket fire was so bright a person could read a book by it, sleep never came." Or when discussing the camps, "He watched little emaciated boys carrying water in their jerry cans, gathering dog droppings to make fire, carving toy AK-47s out of wood with dull knives..." Yet again though I find him…emotionless. Even when he describes these things you have no sense of feelings. Reading them is like reading a history book. Flavorless. Dull. Descriptive. Nothing more.

The cuts from Mariam to Laila (particularly the first one) get tedious. Just when you begin to get engrossed in the character Hosseini loses you by transferring to the next one. Only when Mariam begins to become a mother to Laila does the meshing really occur and it takes far too long. The history aspects of the book, while interesting at time, become boring and lifeless. The story of the two women and the oppression they endure, in my opinion, should have been his primary goal. Instead of cutting between something that happens to the ladies, to suddenly telling us some struggle that is going on, or some tidbit of politics, he should have just stuck with them, told us what was going on through their eyes. At times he manages this wonderfully and yet for the most part he leaves you wanting. A Thousand Splendid Suns is an interesting read, not fast, not slow, not boring, and yet not entertaining. For the most part it is emotionless. Giving us a lifeless tale of two wonderful women.

As an added bonus I decided to give you the poem written by Saib-e-Tabrizi that the title of the novel is derived from.
Ah! How beautiful is Kabul encircled by her arid mountains
And Rose, of the trails of thorns she envies
Her gusts of powdered soil, slightly sting my eyes
But I love her, for knowing and loving are born of this same dust

My song exhalts her dazzling tulips
And at the beauty of her trees, I blush
How sparkling the water flows from Pul-I-Bastaan!
May Allah protect such beauty from the evil eye of man!

Khizr chose the path to Kabul in order to reach Paradise
For her mountains brought him close to the delights of heaven
From the fort with sprawling walls, A Dragon of protection
Each stone is there more precious than the treasure of Shayagan

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

Her laughter of mornings has the gaiety of flowers
Her nights of darkness, the reflections of lustrous hair
Her melodious nightingales, with passion sing their songs
Ardent tunes, as leaves enflamed, cascading from their throats

And I, I sing in the gardens of Jahanara, of Sharbara
And even the trumpets of heaven envy their green pastures

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