Monday, April 30, 2007

Some Words from Nick: Masterworks from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq

28 April 07
Saturday morning

What the world needs now is for the greatest living authors to use clear, gorgeous language and the highest literary artistry to open the eyes of us Westerners to the realities of the worlds we’ve invaded.

Well, three powerhouse authors have stepped up to the plate.

Judging that Mohsid Hamid’s razor-sharp The Reluctant Fundamentalist is opening at No. 6 on The New York Times bestseller list gives the sense that maybe a few Americans out there are interested in outside opinions. It’s about a bright, cocky young Pakistani scholar who graduates from Princeton and lands a high-flying, cutthroat New York job just before 9/11 changes the world and his life.

This classy little thriller is an homage to one of literature’s unique masterpieces, Albert Camus’s The Fall. Like Camus, Hamid has his narrator speak directly to the reader, inviting him into a personal conversation which gets out of hand. And he’s not the only one echoing Camus these days.

Like Camus, Yasmina Khadra is an Algerian who’s gone to France to create his literary masterpieces. Like Camus, he’s politically and morally compassionate and fiercely objective, with an existential value on freedom from tyranny.

I’m 125 pages into Yasmina Khadra’s new one, a riveting, anxiety-inducing portrait of Iraq told by a kid from a remote Iraq village, The Sirens of Baghdad. Within those first pages, I’ve watched a gentle, emotional young guy forced to go through the trauma of driving an injured friend to the medical clinic past a military stop-point. I’ve been jolted through an all-too-common daily invasive house search, and forced to face the unpleasant, brutal reality of digging out neighbors from an explosion. Three not-too-unusual events. The narrator is just an ordinary young guy who’s not a resistance fighter, not a statistic, just roughed up a bit by the Americans, degraded a bit, nothing broken.

But now he’s been pushed over the edge, and I’m afraid to see where all this is leading. What delivers the final blow is a factor I would never have considered in a million years, a cultural chasm I didn’t even know existed. And it’s decisive, irreversible, and life-destroying.

Besides all that, the book’s got breathtaking writing. Set-ups so cleverly introduced you’re constantly surprised that you already know exactly what you need to know to understand a scene. His ability to disguise plot points and introduce them without a ripple has hit me later with an emotional wallop over and over.

I call the author Yasmina Khadra. That’s his wife’s name. His real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul. Since he was an officer in the Algerian military, his writings were subject to censorship, so he used her name to get his first novels printed and has kept it ever since. He now writes from France, just like his Algerian forebear, Albert Camus, to whom Khadra bears a growing resemblance.

Frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about the first Khadra book I read. I encountered his short novel, The Swallows Of Kabul, right on the tail of Khaled Hosseini’s history-making, David Lean-like production, The Kite Runner, and Khadra’s unpleasant little book has such an overwhelming downer ending that, well, I sorta hated it. I’ve come to respect it more later, with mixed feelings.

It was the second novel I read by Khadra that blew me out of the water. The Attack is about an Arab surgeon in Israel, a doctor so dedicated that when a man on the operating table spits in his face, he goes on operating. The novel begins when the good doctor is summoned to the hospital to find out that the wife he adores has been killed in a terrorist bombing. Horrible enough, but to make matters nightmarish: she was the terrorist.

How could the woman he loved have committed an act he abhors? You’ll want to go with this grieving man as he flings caution to the wind and goes recklessly in search of the answer he can’t live without knowing – what made his wife do this thing?
That would be riches enough, but there’s a long-awaited book about to hit the stores on May 22. We’ve been waiting years for this one. Everyone knows it’s going to be big, but no one dreamed it would be this good. How could the guy who wrote The Kite Runner do it again? Well, believe me, he has. He’s already proved the impossible once, that a novel about a friendship in Afghanistan could remain 130 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

Well, his second achievement, A Thousand Splendid Suns is every bit as powerful as his first. I’m telling you, once his plot gets hold of you, don’t read it in public. You’ll be humiliated. You gasp and make noises. It's like being tied to a runaway truck and dragged over some serious potholes and rocks. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it hurts. I came out of it battered, exhilarated, and crying. Hoo boy, this one really takes the gloves off.

With the detachment of Chekhov writing “Peasants” or “In the Ravine,” in a straightforward, simple style, objective and horrifying in his depiction of life’s simple brutalities, Hosseini takes you into the powerless, unpredictable world of two female characters, Mariam and Laila. Okay, I’m only a man, but these two characters seem so realistic to me, I can’t believe they were created by a male writer. There’s a tender little throwaway scene with a baby that seems like nothing a man would take the time to include, and it becomes a scene so powerful that no one can fail to mention it when discussing the book. The writing is driven, as was his earlier novel, by Hosseini’s passionate love of his country. His deep-hearted commitment to Afghanistan drives the story as much as his respect and admiration for the unsung heroism of the least heroic of characters, in this case, an illegitimate, uneducated woman like Mariam.

No first novel has a right to sell like Hosseini’s first novel. No second novel can possibly be as good as Hosseini’s second novel.

Hasn’t someone told Hosseini the rules?

So many good ones, so dang little time.

Speaking of time, it’s time to get back to The Sirens Of Baghdad. What a feeling to find myself in a master writer’s hands, in a remote Iraq village, far from any Western eyes, and to watch the smoke and fighting slowly coming closer and closer…

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