01 August 2011

Chugging through the summer with literature.

For a summer course I'm teaching I just finished reading Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's an interesting text and like its predecessor, The Kite Runner, this novel is a real page turner. Hosseini knows how to pace a story and how to build suspense. His chapter breaks are impeccable.

Let me continue.

His character development is very good where it concerns the two main women of the novel, Mariam and Laila. It's not as good as developing the male characters in the text, but in part you could argue it's because the male characters do not develop at least as far as the women are concerned. Rasheed, who is probably the central male figure, is simply nasty. He enjoys his position as absolute lord over first Mariam and later Laila and Mariam. Since the story is told from the perspectives of the women, Rasheed essentially presents himself to them as an unquestionable overseer: he gives orders and they obey.

It's a harrowing story and I think an important one for us to understand U.S. cultural consumption of the last decade of the Afghanistan conflict. Both Hosseini's novels have been bestsellers; one has been turned into a film, while the other is in development. They certainly contain a narrative that American audiences (both liberal and conservative) can identify with: the Taliban were bad.

Of course the texts are more complex than that, but one theme they reinforce is the absolute tyranny of the Taliban rule. In The Kite Runner, the main problem one might have with the story is that its sympathies lie with a ruling elite that has lost power and been exiled...yes the Taliban are bad, but lingering at the back of the mind is that perhaps it was the excesses or blindness of the wealthy that made the Taliban possible.

A Thousand Splendid Suns
brings us much closer to what you might call "everyday experience," in that the two women come from markedly different backgrounds but neither is of the ruling elite. Mariam, the daughter of one of her father's servants, is born an outcast near Herat. Laila is the daughter of middle class parents in Kabul. When the middle-aged Rasheed marries the teenaged Mariam and brings her back to Kabul, it is to Laila's family's neighborhood that they move. Years later, when Laila's remaining family is killed in fighting between warring factions of warlords, Rasheed marries her, uniting both women under his oppressive rule.

You could argue with the ending, as things fall in place a bit too neatly and quickly, but the main interest I have in this novel is its place in our cultural memory. One thing that propelled these novels to best-seller status was their subject matter: the U.S. was and continues to be intimately involved in the affairs of Afghanistan. However, Hosseini does not offer easy solutions and no one comes out of his books unscarred.

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