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Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Indonesian translation)







Afghanistan, in my mind anyway, marched its way out of near obscurity back when America declared war on it back in 2001. Previous to that I’m sure that I had heard of it, but not in any meaningful way. What I particularly enjoyed about A Thousand Splendid Suns was the loose history lesson it provides, and the way it creates a sense of dimension and identity for a nation of people who have suffered much hardship. Not only that, but the fame of the previous novel, The Kite Runner, has guaranteed that the story of Afghanistan is going to be passed around a much wider audience than it previously had in its long and recently brutal existence.
The story

Mariam was born into the shame of being the bastard child of a wealthy man and a servant, and is condemned to live away from the city in a shack with her mother. At fifteen the unthinkable happens; she is betrayed by the father she idolises and sent away to Kabul for an arranged marriage. During this time, the Soviets come to Afghanistan and implement communism, and rebel forces declare war. Although the ruling party don’t enforce religion, Mariam’s husband insists she wears a burka.


Laila is born to loving and forward thinking parents who want her to go to university and build a better Afghanistan. But when her brothers head off to fight the soviets her mother sinks into a deep depression. All she has left is her best friend, Tariq, who has already lost a leg from a landmine. As the children grow up, the Soviets are removed by the Mujahideen. But then the infighting between the war lords begins and Kabul becomes a war zone.

A Thousand Splendid Suns follows the lives of these two women, which become inextricably linked, through the last thirty years of Afghanistan’s history.
The style

A Thousand Splendid Suns is undeniably well written, although sometimes grammatically correct to the point of awkwardness (possibly the result of an overzealous editor!) The perspective is limited third person, sometimes Mariam, sometimes Laila, which works to great effect to attach the reader to both characters equally. The manner that Hosseini marries the personal with the external political forces is also well done; and the history isn’t overdone, overly complex, or difficult to follow because it is seen through the eyes of the main characters. (on the flip side, a buff may find it almost criminally simplistic). This means that we see the history and how it personally affected the two characters from their perspectives, and of course the people around them. In a way, this means the simplicity had a sense of realism particularly because it avoided the whole “it was 1945 and the bombs were falling...” introduction to chapter pieces that can be really alienating to the reader.

It did feel a bit like cashing in... I couldn’t help in the back of my mind wondering if Hosseini’s books would have been as popular and avidly read if not for Afghanistan being the first port of call for George Bush’s war on terror, or if he would even have written them at all. Not only that, but sometimes the character behaviour is a little too Western. Would ALL women have behaved this way given these situations, or just Mariam and Laila? I also couldn’t help wondering about the authenticity of some of their thoughts and actions, and the ending was a bit sickly sweet. That said, and while I wouldn’t go quite so far as some reviewers have, A Thousand Splendid Suns is artfully written, the two main characters have guileless voices and strong personalities, and Hosseini deals with the historical transitions of the country and the personal transitions of the women very nicely. If nothing else, the story speaks not only for the strength and adaption of human character, but also about how lucky those of us who have never lived through a continuous war zone are.
Who is this book for?

A Thousand Splendid Suns isn’t a hard slog to get through. It’s only in hard cover at the moment, so you mightn’t want to take it on the bus, but it’s a pretty good wet-weather distraction. The only problem I can see with advising this book is that historians and sociologists might take exception to bits and pieces—historians with the oversimplification of the history and the fact that the lines of fact and fiction aren’t made clear. This means that some lay readers may take for gospel what is, in fact, an oversimplification. So, if you think you’ll get pedantic, just remember the story is more about two women than historical fact. If you’re a sociologist, be aware that there are certain issues with the portrayal of authenticity in character voice and action. With those things in mind, knock yourself out. I would wait till it’s in paperback, but that’s just me not loving this genre as much as others.


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