Khaled Hosseini has hewn compelling narratives and indelible characters from the harsh landscape of Afghanistan. His latest offering, And the Mountains Echoed, is a multi-generational family story that explores the ways in which one family loves, wounds, betrays, honours and sacrifices each other. Six years in the writing, it has now been published by Bloomsbury India. Excerpts from an interview:
What inspired you to write And the Mountains Echoed?
The novel was not something that sprang fully formed from my mind, nor something that I sat down to plan. There was no single moment of inspiration but I think that the idea for the central event in the novel was with me, at least on a subconscious level, for quite some time. I may have thought of it as early as 2007, when I travelled to Afghanistan with the U.N. Refugee Agency.
One of the most striking parts of that trip for me was learning from village elders the devastation that Afghanistan’s notoriously brutal winters visited upon impoverished villagers, routinely taking the lives of the young, the elderly, the sick and disabled. I listened with a mix of horror and admiration to the tales of survival, the choices villagers made and the lengths to which they went to protect their families through the cold season.
When I came home, I tried to picture what I would do under those same circumstances. I tried to imagine the despair, the agonising calculus that went into deciding what was best for the family, and the painful compromises reached. Slowly, a family began to take shape in my mind — not unlike the many I had visited — one living in a remote village, forced to make a painful choice that most of us would find unbearable. At the heart of this family, I pictured a young brother and sister who become the unwitting victims of their family’s despair.
The novel begins, then, with this single act of desperation, of sacrifice, an act that ruptures the family and ultimately becomes the tree trunk from which the novel’s many branches spread out. The bulk of writing this novel, and really the joy of it, was in pursuing the far-reaching ripples of this one act, discovering the lives it had touched and transformed and all the unexpected ways in which it still echoed through the decades.
This is your first book set all around the world. What inspired such a wide range of settings, from Paris to Greece to California?
It is true that this is a less Afghan-centric book than the previous two. I have attempted to expand the social, cultural, and geographic milieu of my characters and to add a more global flavour to the story. The book begins in Afghanistan and hops around the world — from Kabul to Paris to Greece to northern California and elsewhere. Partly, having travelled extensively the last few years, I wanted to expand the landscape for my characters as well, and partly I wanted to surround myself with a few characters who are nothing like me or the people that I know. There are wonderful writers — Alice Munro comes to mind — who can find an endless supply of deeply felt stories set, more or less, in the same settings. For me, I needed some fresh air, so to speak. I needed to, at least now and then, leave a story world that began with Kabul and ended with Kandahar.
What do you see as the common themes between And the Mountains Echoed and your previous two novels?
I am drawn to family as a central theme of my writing. Like my previous two books, this latest is a multi-generational family story. Mostly, it is because I think all the grand themes of life, of being human, can be found within family stories — love, grief, conflict, duty, sacrifice. And yet, they play out differently from family to family. And so there are endless variations on the theme. To me, families are puzzles that take a lifetime to work out — or not, as often is the case — and I like to explore how people within them try to connect, be it through love, duty, or circumstance.
Also, like the previous two books, the “home base” is still Afghanistan. No matter their nationality, the characters in this book have varying degrees of intimacy with Afghanistan.
Last, much of what the characters experience — as in the previous books — is universal, regardless of their own nationality: loss of family, fear of abandonment, finding the courage to be a good person, the pull of “home,” taking care of a dying loved one. These are human experiences that transcend international borders, language, or religion.
Obama has committed to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. What do you think the future portends for the country?
I think the next few years will be a time of uncertainty and anxiety in Afghanistan, probably marked by continued political instability and spikes of violence, even as the country moves slowly and gradually toward some form of peace negotiations with the insurgents. I am still cautiously optimistic that peace is a possibility in Afghanistan. Though I do fear — with the withdrawal of the West — a return to the chaos and ethnic civil wars of the 1990s, I am also hopeful that important lessons have been learned from that catastrophe and that the various factions have come to see the dividends of peace. Of course, outside parties have to observe and respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and allow Afghans to attain their own peace. My main hope is that when the peace negotiations do unfold, they are inclusive, and legitimate representatives of Afghan society are allowed to participate. This includes women. Women must be part of the reconciliation process and their interests must be protected at all costs. The agreement should not compromise human rights or relinquish the freedoms that Afghans, particularly urban women, have painstakingly secured over the last decade. The agreement must be just and reflect the genuine aspirations and will of the Afghan people.