Monday, 12 May 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a disturbing look at life in Afghanistan from the 70's to the early noughties. This timeline encompasses the time of the Soviet occupation and the struggle with the Mujahadeen; the eventual victory and subsequent the rule of the tribal warlords; the rise and rule of the Taliban and then finally, mercifully, their overthrow.

The author, Khaled Husseini, was born in Kabul. This is his second book. His first, "The Kite Runner" was an excellent read so when this book was recommended to me I was very enthusiastic about it. My enthusiasm waned significantly after about 100 pages. The story is a stark one, one without warmth or humour. Husseini potrays the life story of Mariam, a country girl who is forced into an arranged marraige with Rasheed, an elderly businessman from the city. Their story is one of unrelenting misery in a country riven by war.

I put the book down at one stage - unsure whether it would ever be picked up again. If the book had been kicked under my bed I would probably have forgotten about it and moved on. However I did eventually get involved with the story and ultimately found the book rewarding and as I said disturbing, if not entertaining.

The turning point came when Husseini started to weave specific historical events into the narrative. I remember for example when the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddah's at Bamiyan to the horror of the West; the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviets; I remember the stories and hidden camera footage of the public executions at Kabul stadium. These events formed the backdrop to the continued story as Rasheed took a second wife Laila, an orphaned teenager.

Rasheed is the Taliban personified. He is a brutal, selfish, mysoginist. He contrasts with Mariam who is a victim of the society in which she lives - she is stoic, meek and powerless. In their midst Laila is the catalyst for change - she has hope. I found Husseini's characterisations to be a little wooden; I cannot say that I really understood any of the characters but one could not help but to empathise with their plight.

The story of the 3 individuals personalises the story of Afghanistan and changes it from being just another awful news story into something more powerful, something which makes you once again marvel at man's capabilty for cruelty and oppression. In the end there is something resembling hope for Afghanistan but I was left with a feeling that the changes are somewhat cosmetic - that the real problems exist in people's hearts - not in their Governments.