Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I wish I knew more about Afghan mythology, literature, and history so that I could place this novel by Khaled Hosseini in the context of its own cultural heritage. The title comes from a poem in praise of Kabul by an Afghan poet I've never read. What struck me in reading the novel was how well it can be related to world mythology and Western literature, of which I do know something.

Structurally, the novel brilliantly interweaves the stories of two Afghan women characters from different generations trying to survive and thrive in a patriarchal, polygamous society torn by civil war and outside invasions, first by the Soviet Union in 1979 and later by the United States in 2001.

The two women's stories begin separately, intersect, then pivot away from each other in a violent murder, which leads to the older woman's execution and the younger one's liberation. At the heart of this divergence is the older woman's self-sacrifice, which re-enacts her own mother's suicide. When Mariam murders the husband that she shares with Laila, as he is beating the younger woman, Laila is freed from an oppressive marriage and reunited with her first love, whose child she has already borne. One story ends in tragedy, the other in renewal and redemption from an oppressive life.

The novel could be read as historical drama or feminist protest, but the theme of human sacrifice connects it to a universally recurring mythological, religious and human story of birth, quest and trial, sacrifice, and renewal. This pattern plays out in the cosmic story of creation, apocalypse, and re-creation; in the divine narrative of birth, mission, sacrifice, death, and resurrection; in the hero myth of youthful possibility, quest, trial, encounter with death, and apotheosis.

In religious traditions, sacrifice is the means of reconnection to divine origins. The cleansing flood restores the original divine purpose, the death of the god renews human history, the hero's sacrifice saves the human community. In A Thousand Splendid Suns Mariam's sacrifice raises her own tragic life to a higher purpose, that of saving Laila and freeing her to a higher life of authentic love, family, and belonging. Just as those thousand splendid suns were made possible by a thousand dark nights.

Similarly, Odysseus must descend into Hades before he can be restored to his home and family, the Shakespearean tragic hero must die before the corruption of his nation can be cleansed, Jane Austen's heroines must suffer loss and rejection before finding romantic fulfillment, Billy Budd's hanging is necessary to maintain the social order, and the American hero must experience deprivation before achieving the American dream.

Sacrifice is the necessary evil out of which springs human fulfillment. To what extent does our individual happiness depend upon the sacrifice of others? To what extent does the happiness of others depend upon our own self-sacrifice?