Mission Fatigue

Ever since the publication of The Kite Runner in 2003, the Afghan-born American novelist Khaled Hosseini has been the foremost practitioner of what we might call humanitarian fiction—work designed to jar privileged readers out of their complacency by reminding them of the extreme hardships and injustices suffered by people in other parts of the world.

“So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one.”

Mission fatigue

Ever since the publication of The Kite Runner in 2003, the Afghan-born American novelist Khaled Hosseini has been the foremost practitioner of what we might call humanitarian fiction—work designed to jar privileged readers out of their complacency by reminding them of the extreme hardships and injustices suffered by people in other parts of the world. The Kite Runner, which describes the oppression of the Hazara people by the majority Pashtuns through the fraught relationship between an Afghan boy and his half-brother, and Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, about the plight of two Afghan women who are married to the same man, are perfect examples of the genre. Both include solemnly narrated scenes of suffering against a backdrop of war and poverty, sympathetic portrayals of children victimized by horrific events, and scattered signs of hope or redemption, based upon the rare but never fully extinguished human capacity for kindness.

While these books focus on extremely grim subjects, they also suggest that the suffering they describe can be overcome by the power of compassion. Both authors and readers of humanitarian fiction seem to recognize that part of the genre’s value depends on its ability to ameliorate, at least in some small measure, the painful conditions it depicts. These books are frequently accompanied by appeals to the reader for some kind of action, either in their back materials or as a part of the interviews and readings that comprise their publicity campaigns. In one prominent recent example, during Oprah Winfrey’s book club discussion of Uwem Akpan’s collection of harrowing stories about African children, Say You’re One of Them, Winfrey encouraged a form of empathetic reading that culminated in a contribution to one of several NGOs working within the continent. An afterword to A Thousand Splendid Suns details Hosseini’s work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and encourages donations to the author’s own charity, the Khaled Hosseini Foundation. Over and over, online reviewers of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns have stressed that the books are a reminder of our shared humanity and “the power of love and compassion that always wins in the end.”

“So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one,” begins Hosseini’s latest novel about Afghanistan, And the Mountains Echoed, acknowledging the compact between him and his readers right away. Fulfilling the requirements of his genre, Hosseini seeds And the Mountains Echoed with abundant clues that devastating things are coming. The book begins with a poor Afghan villager leading his two children, a son and daughter, out into the wilderness and away from their uncaring stepmother, the echoes of “Hansel and Gretel” suggesting that his mission is not a benevolent one. Ominously, just before they set out, the father decides to tell his children a folktale about a man who surrenders his favorite son to a marauding horned monster called a div to protect the rest of his family from annihilation.

A series of details—Hosseini’s constant emphasis on the almost cosmic bond between the two children; the girl’s name, Pari, which is Farsi for “fairy”; the children’s singing, “I know a sad little fairy / Who was blown away by the wind one night”; the father’s attempt to prevent his son from coming along on the journey—signal what’s coming next. By the time they reach their destination in Kabul, the mansion of Nila, a beautiful, rich, but somehow creepy half-Afghan who remarks to Pari, “You are so lovely,” no reader could fail to understand that the father is planning to give his daughter away. Hosseini’s strategy is to make sure we hear the steady tick of the time bomb that he’s planning to detonate. It can be a mesmerizing one; he employed it effectively enough in his previous two books. In And the Mountains Echoed, however, this foreshadowing is so heavy-handed that it allows readers to foresee not just the likelihood of some tragedy in the near future, but the exact details of that tragedy—how and when it will unfold—well before it happens.

The opening section’s one surprise is Hosseini’s refusal to describe the anticipated traumatic moment: the inevitable scene in which Pari is surrendered to Nila and separated from her devastated older brother, Abdullah. The scene is not narrated at all, except in a terse summary shortly after it has already occurred. What begins as a way of reminding readers that the obligatory tragedies are imminent becomes a way to drain them of narrative energy. Foreshadowing and flashback replace action.

A similar narrative fatalism pervades almost all of the linked episodes in And the Mountains Echoed. The text is less like a novel than a collection of loosely joined short stories, each of the nine chapters focusing on a different character, all connected to each other in some way (most are Afghan or Afghan expats). What unifies all their narratives is a common feeling of powerlessness. Hosseini’s reflexive irony transforms potential surprises into predictable outcomes: a doctor’s impassioned promise to help a young girl with a life-threatening head wound is a guarantee of his subsequent failure to act; a teenage boy’s expressions of limitless admiration for his father signal that the father’s corruption is about to be revealed.

Many of these episodes seem belated, taking place sometimes months, or even years, after the decisions that set them in motion, at a point when no significant deviations from the course seem possible. Often these decisive events are recounted by characters; at other times, Hosseini simply chooses to set the action after the key developments. The crucial act has already taken place; the startled cry has already sounded, and we are just hearing the echo. The book ends with Abdullah and Pari’s reunion in America decades after their original separation. But again it’s too late: Abdullah is suffering from dementia and he doesn’t recognize his sister. Their separation, prompted by the decision their father made before the novel began, is a grim first principle rather than an alterable state of affairs.

In between Abdullah and Pari’s original separation and Hosseini’s description of its final consequences, we encounter a series of characters struggling to deal with the aftermath of some previously committed transgression or crime. One chapter describes how Abdullah’s stepmother, Parwana, must care for her paraplegic sister whose spinal injury she caused when they were children by shaking the branch of a tree they were sitting on, in a somewhat too exact replay of the pivotal scene in A Separate Peace. In another, Parwana’s brother Nabi offers a lengthy mea culpa for facilitating the adoption that begins the novel.

Hosseini does not present all the decisive action in And the Mountains Echoed as something that has already happened, and when he offers particular episodes as flashbacks or memories, he will sometimes portray them in detail so they feel like unfolding dramas. Nevertheless, he tends to skip over the key moments of moral crisis whose arrival he has led readers to expect. Nabi’s chapter, for example, features an extended deliberation on whether he should leave his job as a private cook after he discovers an obsessive series of sketches that his employer has made of him without his knowledge. Immediately upon describing the dilemma, however, Nabi’s account leaps several years into the future, skipping over his period of uncertainty as if his course of action (he stayed with his employer) were a foregone conclusion.

The tone of these episodes, although fatalistic, is not cynical. And the Mountains Echoed maintains an incessantly disappointed optimism—the sense of disappointment often building in advance of the various dismal events that serve ultimately to justify it. Unlike the late 19th- and early 20th-century practitioners of literary naturalism, Hosseini doesn’t present his characters’ actions as the product of biological or environmental pressures beyond their control: he simply positions the important decision elsewhere, offstage or prior to the present moment. What we get is mostly just troubleshooting after the fact.

Hosseini’s reluctance to cater to his readers’ desire for a suspenseful narrative, his refusal to produce scenes of heroism capable of redirecting the disastrous narratives that past acts have set in motion, his endless reminders that things are doomed to go badly—all of this suggests a kind of resignation or weariness with the project of humanitarian fiction that he has championed for over a decade. And The Mountains Echoed seems to give voice to Hosseini’s misgivings regarding his own project most pointedly in an episode about Idris and Timur, two cousins who, after many years living comfortably in the United States, return to Afghanistan in order to reclaim and sell the house that Timur’s father had owned. While he’s ashamed of their self-interested motives, Idris is also ashamed of the altruistic fiction his cousin invents upon being questioned:

They have come back to “reconnect,” to “educate” themselves, “bear witness” to the aftermath of all these years of war and destruction. They want to go back to the States, he says, to raise awareness, and funds, to “give back.”

“We want to give back,” he says, uttering the tired phrase so earnestly it embarrasses Idris.

The language of humanitarianism can be used only in quotations, and heard only as a prelude to inevitable disappointment. It is hard not to see these two characters—Afghan expats returning to their country to make money while using the rhetoric of humanitarianism to justify their actions—as Hosseini’s deliberately unflattering reflection of his own previous work as a novelist.

Charitable acts, for the most part, do not come out looking good in And the Mountains Echoed. The book’s initial scene, in which Pari is handed over to Nila, who will eventually relocate her to Paris, is a fairly devastating critique of that most serious and most lauded of humanitarian commitments, international adoption. Nila’s motives are selfish and the consequences of her act are mixed. Its final results, Hosseini suggests, are a broken family and a child, Pari, who will spend her whole life feeling “the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence.” In another story, after trying to give a leather jacket to a poor refugee whose land his family has stolen, a wealthy warlord’s son realizes that his act of generosity is actually a bribe: I give you this jacket, and you stop making me feel guilty for the privileges I enjoy.

In another telling scene, the nurse at an NGO clinic calls people who are too curious about her patients’ horrific injuries “rubberneckers.” Idris, who is visiting the clinic, agrees that such stories can easily become a form of “pornography.” But he too falls victim to easy sentiment when he promises to arrange a life-saving operation for a wounded girl. Though Idris initially finds his commitment “exhilarating, intoxicating, euphoric even,” his feelings quickly subside after he returns to the United States. “Talking about Afghanistan—and he is astonished at how quickly and imperceptibly this has happened—suddenly feels like discussing a recently watched, emotionally drenching film whose effects are beginning to wane.” In the end, he spends the money he might have used to pay for the girl’s operation on a “home theater.”

With Idris, Hosseini seems to be imagining a certain type of reader, one who will remain a passive spectator, secretly enjoying the powerful emotions produced by scenes of human suffering but failing to act to improve the situation that unleashed those emotions in the first place. The emphasis Hosseini places on how quickly such feelings wear off explains why he often chooses to leach the book’s climactic moments of suspense or skip over them altogether, so denying his readers the cathartic experiences they are waiting for. And the Mountains Echoed combines many of the gestures of humanitarian fiction with equally forceful gestures of fatalism, leaving readers with no satisfactory way of responding. There’s not even an afterword instructing readers how to channel their guilt and compassion, and the Khaled Hosseini Foundation gets only a perfunctory mention in the author bio.

When John Barth declared the exhaustion of the novel in 1967, he was thinking of a form written mostly by, about, and for middle-class Americans and Europeans. An inescapable problem for any novelist during that period, Barth believed, was the widespread perception that all the aesthetic possibilities of the novel had been tried and used up, that innovation was no longer possible. Interestingly enough, he viewed this prospect not as a liability but as an opportunity: authors who wanted to keep the novel alive simply needed to produce writing that acknowledged and explored its own sense of exhaustion. Forced to recycle overused, worn out tropes, novels could escape redundancy by signaling an awareness of their own derivative status. Metafiction—fiction about fiction, fiction that mediates upon its own form—represented both a symptom of the novel’s exhaustion, and a way to use its own exhaustion as fuel for further innovation.

When he identified the future of fiction with the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Barth was certainly looking in the right direction—that is to say away from Europe and the United States. But it was not metafiction itself that reenergized the novel; rather it was the concurrent introduction of new voices, new styles, and entirely new subjects from Latin America, Africa, and Asia that had not previously been able to break into the world literary marketplace. And it was obviously the latter trend that paved the way for authors like Khaled Hosseini.

Now, it seems, Hosseini’s novels, too, have reached a point of exhaustion. To read his latest book is to encounter a feeling of extreme emotional, if not physical, fatigue—the kind that any long-term engagement with a seemingly insoluble humanitarian crisis might produce. A narrative or genre becomes exhausted, Barth suggested, when a large number of people, for whatever reason, no longer feel that it is working as it should—or as it once did.  If the function of a particular narrative, like the novel, is to convey a truth about the world, and nobody can believe in that truth, then the narrative itself, rather than the reality it seeks to convey, becomes the object of our attention. Though And the Mountains Echoed is not a work of metafiction, the self-consciousness manifest everywhere in Hosseini’s novel implies a recognition that it has become increasingly difficult to believe in a particular kind of humanitarian narrative—one that invests compassion with the miraculous power to triumph over suffering.

It is not hard to identify causes of Hosseini’s disillusionment: human rights, after all, have played a central role in justifying the US’s mostly ineffectual military operations, especially in the several decades since the end of the cold war. While humanitarian intervention can of course assume many other forms, the end result of the United States’ efforts on the world stage in recent years seems to be a weariness with all forms of intervention—a fatalistic sense that no kind of action, whether national or individual, can avert the tragedies or mitigate the suffering occurring daily all across the globe. A similar attitude pervades Hosseini’s novel. He wrote And the Mountains Echoed during the failed surge in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 and the subsequent drawdown shortly thereafter. While the book mostly avoids engaging explicitly with international politics, the narrative structures it employs and the decision to focus almost entirely on the inevitable aftermath of major, misguided decisions echo the resignation and despair caused by these events.

As Barth contended, however, a narrative form can show signs of exhaustion without necessarily arriving at a dead end. The weariness in Hosseini’s latest novel suggests a loss of faith in certain sentimental narratives of humanitarian engagement, but And The Mountains Echoed does more than simply reproduce a particular literary form in order to demonstrate its inadequacy. It imagines a world where idealism can find no purchase in order to force us to consider what might be still possible in the absence of idealism. Thus And the Mountains Echoed aims to make us sad, interminably sad, with no promise of relief—tragedy without catharsis. Though in the hands of many postmodern novelists metafictional devices often seem to derail our sentimental impulses in favor of more cerebral responses, the kinds of self-reflexivity in And the Mountains Echoed are as impassioned as the sentiments against which they react. Hosseini is not relieving readers of the obligation to feel, but encouraging them to feel more, and more complexly: not just sadness, but discomfort, not just compassion, but self-loathing. In And the Mountains Echoed he invites readers to be intensely troubled not only by the suffering of its characters, but by the realization that their own feelings are bound to wear off. The inadequacy of humanitarian sentiment, it suggests, is one reason, although not of course the only reason, that the instances of suffering that call forth these emotions will persist indefinitely.

Though most of And the Mountains Echoed is narrated in the third person, a major section is a letter, written by one of the Afghani characters and addressed to the Greek foreign aid worker, Markos, a doctor who has lived and worked in Kabul since the American invasion after September 11. Markos exemplifies that category of human beings whom Hosseini describes as “world savvy, impossible to impress.” He is no longer capable of being surprised by new outrages or atrocities but still able to expend unlimited amounts of time, emotion, and energy working on problems that might seem paralyzing to almost anyone else. In Markos, Hosseini may well be identifying an ideal reader: a point of contrast to his actual readers, who need to be shocked out of complacency and whose emotional responses tend to be as short-lived as they are intense. Behind this ideal seems to be Hosseini’s desire to rewrite the contract with his audience, and to repudiate the kinds of sentimental responses that his earlier work sought to elicit. If this means that And the Mountains Echoed ends up disappointing a fair number of his loyal readers, Hosseini has good reasons. The subject he has chosen to document is a grim one, and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

One of the last views of Afghanistan offered by And the Mountains Echoed centers on an orphaned 12-year-old refugee whose father has just been killed trying to reclaim his land from a jihadist turned drug lord. In one of Hosseini’s familiar devices, the boy’s suffering is relayed through the perspective of another child—the drug lord’s son, who, grappling with the murder his father committed, predicts sadly that the orphaned boy will end up “one of those stooping leather-faced men [he] always saw behind plows.” Hosseini makes it clear, however, that there are, in fact, other characters in the book, well-off expatriate relatives, who would be eager to help the boy if they only knew he existed. The odds that they will track him down are slim, but the book offers no further clues. He remains an unsettling loose end, divorced from any kind of narrative resolution, either tragic or redemptive. It is yet another way Hosseini refuses to give his readers what they want.

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