Monday, March 10, 2008

Khaled Hosseini "A Thousand Splendid Suns": a CFI book club discussion

4 people attended a CFI Science And Religion in Fiction book club discussion of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini. The two main characters of this novel are two women who were given away in marriage, against their will, to the same brutal, abusive man. The story follows them over a quarter of a century, during which Afghanistan endures a few dictatorships and a long, grueling war.

Most of the attendees liked the novel very much. 3 people have read Khaled Hosseini's first novel, "The Kite Runner", and thought both were terrific books, though one reader liked "The Kite Runner" a "teensy bit" better, as it had a more interesting story line. Two readers thought that the author struggled a bit to show things from the female perspective in "A Thousand Splendid Suns", but it nonetheless provided something "The Kite Runner" did not -- a window into lives of women in Afghanistan. Those lives were every bit as bad as one would imagine, and then some. The author indeed does a good job of giving the reader a taste of what it's like to be the most powerless of the powerless people. The two heroines of the book struggle to survive in a double dictatorship: as the Taliban rule the country with terror, the women's husband rules the house by brutality and intimidation. Hosseini does not shy away of portraying the most horrible moments of their lives, but he does it gently, lyrically.

Some of the insights into women's life may appear counterintuitive to a western reader. For example, some of us found it striking that when when Mariam first put on a burqa, she felt a little more safe, as if she had a place to hide from the world and all those people she was afraid of. So a burqa wasn't just a tool of oppression, it unexpectedly turned out to be protective, in a way. There are other nuances in portrayal of characters, even the most evil of them, Rasheed (the husband). As much as he abused his wives, Rasheed wasn't a complete monster, a reader noted; he was a product of his times. Wife beating was considered the norm in that place and time. Some of his behavior has redeeming value -- for example, silently accepting Laila's daughter, despite secretly knowing he was not the father. In a situation where men had absolute power over wives, one of our readers gave Rasheed credit for not murdering Laila and her daughter outright, which he could have easily done. The reader acknowledged, though, it probably wasn't magnanimity that made Rasheed tolerate an out-of-the-wedlock child, but fear of embarrassment if the community found out.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is very easy to read text-wise: the plot is straightforward, the motivations of the characters transparent. One reader was impressed that the author, despite coming from a different culture, was able to make this novel accessible to an American reader.

However, on an emotional level this book may be difficult to get through. It's hard to read about heroic women whose lives are dire from the start (at least Mariam's was; but Laila didn't have an easy childhood either), and they were going to only get worse with time. You know their lives will get worse when the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and much worse when the Soviet occupation will be replaced by the infighting mujahideen fractions, and then worse again when a Taliban dictatorship will replace the mujahideen war.

Here I must note something I found a little disappointing about this book. I expected that a novel set in Afghanistan during the rule of Taliban would at least touch upon the topic of the nature of religious fundamentalism. Perhaps I was hoping that it would reveal how a theocratic dictatorship comes into being, or that it would put me in the mind of a jihadist. Of course, this wasn't this novel's mission; there are other books about that, although I think they might have fitted the topic of the CFI Science and Religion In Fiction book club better. Another reader thought the reason why the book avoided a Jihadist perspective altogether was because it very clearly shows that the Taliban's grabbing of power was not motivated by religion. It was all about grabbing resources in a land of limited resources. People joined the Taliban so that they could feel powerful and push other people around.

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