In the opening scene of his new novel, And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini shows an Afghan father telling his children a story. The story is about life’s fragility in the face of an unpredictable and unnegotiable universe, the loss of children, and the tenacity of memory. In the story, the father is offered a choice—having a lost child returned to him to live a life he knows will never be more than difficult, often harsh, or leaving the child in the relative paradise to which it had been spirited while the father is granted the gift of forgetfulness, so he might return home with no memory of loss. The father chooses the latter.
But all around him, when he returns, memory remains, part of the landscape, continually troubling his life with fleeting moments of doubt about something he cannot name.
He has left his memories far away, in the mountains. But the mountains are always there.
So, it turns out, are the memories, recognized or not. The real mountains in the novel are the tectonic accumulations of intersecting lives, which in some ways seem to have no real point to their connections, but over time—generations, really—build into massively instantiating forms, repositories of meaning. Some of these characters climb over them, others live at their roots, still others move away from them, trying to lessen their dominance. But every word they speak echoes back laden with the textures of their beginnings.
The novel begins with the story of Abdullah and Pari, brother and sister who share a deep bond. Pari collects bird feather in a tin box, feathers Abdullah helps gather for her, and their playground is the village of Shadbagh. Life is crushingly hard for their parents. The father is a laborer. His first wife, Abdullah’s and Pari’s mother, died giving birth to Pari. His second wife has given him another son, Iqballah. Her brother, Nabi, lives in Kabul, the personal servant to a man of wealth who is married to a woman more at home in Parisian society than in her native Afghanistan. The necessities and desires of these people bring them into association with each other in the most unexpected way, resulting in the separation of Abdullah and Pari.
Thus the series of separations which are the echoes of the novel.
Pari is taken into her new home, much too young for the memories of her time spent with Abdullah to be retained in other than a lifelong sense of hollowness. The woman who becomes her mother is a poet, herself severed from the connections to home and family that might supply a sense of welcome in the world through which she moves. Talented, beautiful, she is nevertheless a refugee even in her own country. When her husband suffers a stroke, she takes the opportunity to flee, back to Paris. With Pari, who over time forgets almost everything and is left with a persistent feeling of separation she cannot quite explain or ignore.
The trajectories all these people follow seem at a glance to have little to do with each other, even though certain events lie at the start of their paths. Their lives settle into orbits that are tethered by those events, and no matter how far they go or where they settle in, a constellation forms of which each of them represents the rough boundary of a country that, while it seems to have no place on any map, claims them as native. The echoes from that initiating event form the borders.
Which makes And the Mountains Echoed an exploration of that country, through the eyes of its unwitting inhabitants, all of whom, regardless of their point of origin, are native to a specific topography, bound by common experiences—of loss, abandonment, and escape. He takes us on an expedition of a place of which the only maps are in the psyches of its residents. Along the way he works a variation on the old aphorism “You can never go home” by showing that, in profound ways, we never leave it.
On another level, there is a very real country at the center of these explorations. Hosseini is writing, as always, about Afghanistan—its wonders, its tragedies, its costs, and its possibilities. It is, he seems to tell us, a land of incredible potential, but to date the only possibility to realize it is for those with the talents and will to leave it, go where their particular gifts—themselves—can manifest, beyond the overwhelming gravity of a past that too often has no history of a future, no memory of what could be different that is not bound up in forgetting.
Like the story Abdullah’s and Pari’s father tells at the start.
At least one of his characters recognizes the innate conflict:
It saddens me because of what it reveals to me about Mama’s own neediness, her own anxiety, her feat of loneliness, her dread of being stranded, abandoned. And what does it say about me that I know this about my mother, that I know precisely what she needs and yet how deliberately and unswervingly I have denied her, taking care to keep an ocean, a continent—or, preferably, both—between us for the better part of three decades?
Hosseini writes with an unflinching clarity of what Afghanistan is, tempered by hope for what it could be. It is not that this potential Afghanistan does not exist—it does, he shows us, just not there. It exists in the imaginations of those who have left and are nevertheless citizens of the country of their heart. That country is nascent in the echoes that will some day return from their journey.