Women as Protagonists in A Thousand Splendid Suns
Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner (2003), was also the first novel by an Afghan American writer, and it became a runaway success. It remained for more than two years on American best-seller lists, sold 8 million copies worldwide, and was made into a film, released in December, 2007. When Hosseini revisited Afghanistan after its publication, he had been living in political asylum in California for almost twenty years. On that visit, as he wandered his bombed-out boyhood haunts in Kabul and conversed with its war-scarred people, he felt impelled to tell an Afghan story different from The Kite Runner’s. That book had been about menfathers and sons, male friendship, male treachery. Hosseini now felt drawn to tell a contemporaneous story about Afghanistan’s women. The brilliant result is A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel about two women protagonists, Mariam and Laila. The trajectory of their lives forms the double plot of the book, and although the narrative is in the third person, the point of view itself shifts to that of the character whose plotline is being developed. One is reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s management of the double plot in Anna Karenina (1875-1877).
Indeed, the two women’s narrative points of view structure the novel with intricately wrought symmetry. Part 1 is told entirely through Mariam’s point of view, part 2 wholly through Laila’s. In part 3, however, the viewpoint alternates between the women with each chapter. Then, just as Mariam’s part 1 begins the novel, the concluding part 4 of the novel is told through Laila’s point of view.
A Thousand Splendid Suns can also be read as a female bildungsroman, and the growth of these two girls into maturity, marriage, and maternity aptly illustrates the travail of Afghani women. Hosseini’s two women are strategic contrasts physically, socially, and psychologically. Socially, Mariam is from the rural lower class; Laila, the urban middle class. Psychologically, Mariam is accustomed to humiliation; Laila, to consideration. Physically, Mariam’s features are “unshapely,” “flat,” “unmemorable,” “coarse,” while Laila is a green-eyed blond beauty.
Their common fate is to become co-wives of the same misogynistic, brutal man. As Hosseini spins out their fate, their sharp individual differences only serve to demonstrate the breadth of commonalty among Muslim women in Afghani society during the drastic political upheavals of the 1970’s to 2003a king deposed, a communist coup, a Soviet invasion, a civil war, a faith-based Taliban dictatorship, an invasion by American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces.
In Mariam, Hosseini presents a being at the lowest link of the Afghan social chain. She is poor, female, and illegitimate. She lives in a shack (kolba) beyond the pale of Hert, itself a city on the border with Iran, far from the center, Kabul. Clearly Hosseini locates Mariam on the periphery of society. Mariam’s mother, Nana, is an unmarriageable epileptic. She works as a maid until impregnated by her wealthy employer, Jalil. It is rather unaccountable that Jalil, proprietor of the town’s cinema, owner of a Mercedes, husband to three wives, and father to nine children, would dally with the unlovely Nana. To assuage his Muslim conscience, Jalil sets up Mariam and Nana in their shack, provides for Qur՚nic instruction from Mullah Faizullah (the sanest and most positive influence in Mariam’s young life), and visits her every week, regaling Mariam with stories of what her life might be if she were legitimate. Mariam idolizes Jalil. For her fifteenth birthday, Mariam asks Jalil to take her to his cinema to see Pinocchio (1940) and eat ice cream with her siblings. She is in fact asking for legitimation and distancing herself from her mother. Jalil sighs ambiguously.
Nana pleads with Mariam not to go, or she (Nana) may suffer a mortal epileptic fit. When Jalil does not appear at the appointed hour, Mariam, in a rare act of self-assertion and initiative, makes her way to his home. Refused admission, she stubbornly spends the night at its gates. The next day, Jalil’s chauffeur forcibly escorts her back to her shack. There she is confronted with the grisly spectacle of her hanged mother.
This defining trauma, then, teaches Mariam that to assert oneself, to dare, to take the initiative is to suffer pain, cause hurt to others, and precipitate tragedy. Better to bear and forbear. Hosseini thus prepares the psyche of this character for the almost incredible burden of abuse and suffering that she has to bear in her marriage.
Hardly a week after this traumatic experience, the fifteen-year-old Mariam is hurried into an arranged marriage with a forty-five-year-old shoemaker and widower from Kabul named Rasheed. He is smelly, “thick-bellied,” “broad-shouldered,” and “heavy-footed,” with nails the color of “the inside of a rotting apple.” In Kabul, after a 650-kilometer bus journey, Mariam is made to don a head-to-toe burka (Hosseini reportedly tried one out himself to experience its confinementand odd comfort), and Rasheed exercises his connubial rites painfully and lovelessly. When Mariam conceives, Rasheed is joyful in anticipation of replacing his dead son, who had drowned because of Rasheed’s drunken negligence, but when Mariam has the first of several miscarriages, Rasheed turns cold and brutal. Once, when Mariam’s rice is not to his liking, he stuffs her mouth with pebbles and makes her chew until two molars break.
Growing up in Mariam’s Kabuli neighborhood is Laila, nineteen years her junior, born on the date of the communist coup in 1978. She is the apple of her loving father’s eye. Laila’s is a close-knit, middle-class, monogamous Muslim family with three children. Laila’s father, Hakim (Babi), is a mild-mannered man who was proposed to by his wife, Fariba (Mammy), his childhood playmateand who is now the family’s decision maker. Babi is a university-educated teacher who was reeducated by the communists into a bread factory laborer, but he bears no grudges, only becoming more of a ditherer. However, he firmly believes in education for women as well as men and wants Laila, her school’s star pupil, to continue her schooling even though her teacher is a blatant communist sympathizer. It is notable that although Babi is but a cameo character, Hosseini has admirably conceived him as a foil to Jalil (who is weak like Babi, but selfish) and to Rasheed (who is far from weak, and also selfish).
Mammy is more forceful than her husband, but she is moody (perhaps even bipolar) sometimes partying euphorically, sometimes taking to bed for weeks on end. She blesses her sons’ joining the mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation, but she predictably spirals into deep depression when they become martyrs.
There are moments of brightness in Laila’s life. One such occurs when Babi takes her on an outing to marvel at the giant Buddhas of Bamiyanbut all the world knows with dramatic irony that this moment of brightness will soon be extinguished permanently when the Taliban destroy the statues in 2001. Another source of brightness is her friendship with Tariq, a neighborhood boy who has lost a leg to a land mine; it is a friendship that blossoms into love. After the mujahideen defeat the Soviet troops in 1989, however, civil war breaks out between the victorious factions, turning Kabul into a battleground. Tariq’s family leaves to seek refuge in Pakistan, but not before Tariq and Laila have consummated their love. Ironically, when Mammy finally emerges from her depression and decides to leave also, a shell hits their home, leaving Laila the lone survivor.
Part 3 of the novel opens with Mariam discovering Laila amid the rubble of her home and nursing her back to health. To Mariam’s and the reader’s dismay, Rasheed, now in his sixties, has his eye on Laila as a marriage prospect. A traveler from Pakistan comes with an eyewitness account of Tariq’s death. (Later it is revealed that Rasheed had suborned him into concocting this story.) Laila is heartbroken and destitute, and suspects that she is carrying Tariq’s child, so when Rasheed proposes, Laila reluctantly acceptscausing Mariam great pain. Hosseini skillfully and credibly develops the relationship between these two co-wives, one feeling resentful, the other feeling like a usurper, but both constrained to coexist under the tyrannical regimen of a brutal husband. Their enmity turns toward amity after Laila’s daughter, Aziza, is born, and Mariam’s frustrated maternal nature comes to the fore. They bond as they share household chores, then personal grooming, then their most intimate secrets. Fearing for Aziza’s safety should Rasheed discover her paternity, the women plot an escape to Pakistan, but they are detained at the bus depot (women unaccompanied by male relatives are suspect), Rasheed is informed, and he thrashes them mercilessly.
Some time after this, Laila realizes that she is again pregnant. She almost aborts herself but desists, giving birth to a boy on whom Rasheed dotes. Meanwhile, the fundamentalist Taliban has taken over from the fractious warlords, making life even more restrictive for the women. Events take a dramatic, even a melodramatic, turn after Rasheed confronts Laila with his suspicions about Aziza and forces her into an orphanage. Then Tariq suddenly returns from Pakistan.
Hosseini’s concatenation of the concluding action is as violent and bloody as that of a Renaissance revenge tragedy when the women are forced to rise up against their common oppressor. In part 4 of the novel, Hosseini attempts to provide a coda of calm for the survivors, albeit in the fragile unquiet of post-9/11 Afghanistan.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, then, is indeed a splendid successor to The Kite Runner. Though some may carp at the melodramatic quality of some of Hosseini’s episodes, his protagonists are flesh-and-blood women who are wrenchingly sympathetic, and their plight of living on the front line of political, fundamentalist, and domestic terror may be closer to home than many Western readers would like to think. Besides, Hosseini’s prose is clear and unpretentious, his narrative urgent and compelling. He has written another page-turner.