If you were going to write a novel about an expatriate Afghan returning to the land of his birth, the usual way to do it would be, first, return to Afghanistan, and then, second, write a novel about it. Khaled Hosseini did it backward. He wrote the runaway best-seller The Kite Runner first, about an Afghan living in California who returns home to redeem a moment of cowardice from his childhood. Only in 2003, when the book was already done, did Hosseini go back to Kabul, the city where he was born. He hadn't seen it in 27 years.
"On the one hand, I was hoping I'd got it right, that I didn't screw up," he says. "On the other hand, what I'd written was so terrible, part of me was kind of hoping that it wasn't quite that bad. The reality was that it was actually worse."
Hosseini is almost certainly the most famous Afghan in the world. Even though The Kite Runner is about a complex Middle Eastern culture, in which Americans are supposed to be uninterested, the book has sold over 4 million copies in three years. A movie version will be released this fall. But there's an irony to Hosseini's success: he became famous as the face and voice of a country he hadn't seen since he was a kid, and whose sufferings under the Taliban he completely escaped. "It's sheer luck," he says, "blind, dumb luck that I'm not there. My family happened to leave before the Soviets, they had the means to leave and make a new life. I felt ashamed, like I should have suffered more."
Hosseini can't change his good fortune, but he did come back from Afghanistan with a remarkable new novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead; 372 pages), about the lives of those who stayed behind. It is, in its own way, a kind of redemption.
Hosseini was born in 1965, the son of a prosperous career diplomat. In 1979 Hosseini's father was working at the Afghan embassy in Paris when the Soviets invaded. He moved his family-- Hosseini is the oldest of five children--to San Jose, Calif.
In the Hosseinis' absence Kabul was devastated. Several times. After a decade-long occupation, the Soviets were ousted by a murderer's row of warlords who immediately started annihilating one another, in the process bestowing generous collateral damage on the civilian populace. Order was finally restored by the iron lash of the Taliban, who brutalized Kabul for another seven years. When help finally arrived it was in the form of yet another invasion, this time by the U.S.
Meanwhile Hosseini was growing up in Californian splendor. He learned English, went to high school and college, became a doctor. Audiences at Hosseini's readings are sometimes surprised at how American he looks. He's clean-shaven and handsome--at 42 he bears a passing resemblance to Antonio Banderas. He speaks English with only a slight accent; he has the kind of calm, even voice that must come in handy for delivering bad news to patients. Lounging in the kitchen of the large, neat house he shares with his wife and two children, he wears a cable-knit sweater and a baseball cap that says Miller High Life on it, which he keeps on even inside.
When Hosseini went back to Kabul, the prosperous, cosmopolitan metropolis he remembered was gone, replaced by a polluted, impoverished, war-shattered city. "There's a line in my first novel where this guy says, 'I feel like a tourist in my own country,'" Hosseini says. "I felt the same way." He strolled around Kabul for weeks visiting relatives and talking to people he met in the street. "Some of the things I heard, I wouldn't have believed. This one guy told me he walked into a house one day and saw these three girls: one killed, one in the process of being raped, one struggling--there was this militiaman, he had his hand around this girl's finger, trying to bite her ring off."
It was stories like that that made Hosseini realize he had to write A Thousand Splendid Suns. Unlike The Kite Runner, it has no scenes set in America. This is a book about Afghans in Afghanistan, covering the past 30-plus years of Afghan history almost month by month. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy playboy, forced into a loveless marriage to the boorish shoemaker Rasheed. Childless, the couple adopts 14-year-old Laila, who was orphaned by a rocket attack. Rasheed proceeds to take Laila as a second wife. Confined to a single claustrophobic household, beaten and denied love and set against each other, the two women form a remarkable bond. Against all odds, they find in each other the things that war and society and the Taliban have taken away from them.
A Thousand Splendid Suns probably won't be as commercially successful as Hosseini's first novel, but it is, to put it baldly, a better book. Where The Kite Runner told an appealing but somewhat programmatic tale of redemption, Suns is a dense, rich, pressure-packed guide to enduring the unendurable. (Though there's still plenty of action: "I have this almost pathological fear of boring the reader," Hosseini admits.) Where the characters in The Kite Runner ran heavily to unredeemable sinners and spotless saints, in Suns the characters are more complex and paradoxical--more human.
As you read you can almost feel Hosseini's range as a writer expanding. The Kite Runner was pretty much exclusively about men; Suns is largely about women--in the interest of authenticity Hosseini actually tried on a burqa. ("Just to see what it felt like," he says. "Nobody was around. It steals your breath away. It's really hard to get used to.") In The Kite Runner we witnessed, from a distance, one of the Taliban's infamous executions by Kalashnikov in a soccer stadium. In Suns we experience a similar execution firsthand, from the point of view of the victim.
Hosseini's books have yet to be published in his own country--few have the time and money to read novels, anyway--but he does get letters from Afghans. Most are proud of the world-famous writer their country has produced, but he gets some hate mail too. "They feel that yes, there are problems in Afghanistan, but do we really need to talk about these things? At this time?" There's probably a grain of truth there--there's something distinctively American and confessional about Hosseini's work. He shrugs. For the first time he sounds a little angry. "I guess I misunderstood what the role of fiction was. Because I never thought it was about writing things that everybody agrees about, that make everybody feel warm and fuzzy inside. I guess it's my Western sensibility, now that I've lived here for so long, that I feel like these are things we should talk about." *