A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008)

I haven’t read a book this quickly since Into Thin Air, which I read in 2 days. This one took me about 4 days. What was so compelling about it? It’s hard to not keep reading when tragedy and suffering are around every corner!  Especially when it’s women who are suffering. Women at the hands of men, and things men do to mankind.

This is a story about the choices people make, the actions they take or don’t take, and the choices made for them; it’s about how the world around them keeps moving, sometimes in their favor, sometimes not. It’s also a story about the world of men/mankind and politics and mankind’s penchant for causing suffering over ideological claims. This is a story that is trying to tell the reader about real people whose everyday lives are affected directly, and yet not, by the turmoil of the world around them. It is a very sad story. But it is a happy one.

I knew I would be pulled into this novel when within the first 20-or-so-pages, tears came to my eyes.  This novel reminds me a lot of The Grapes of Wrath, and the choice Rosasharn makes in the end. As a matter of fact, this entire novel, to me, is permeated by that same pathos that Steinbeck is trying to convey through Rosasharn’s actions.  It is a reminder of the perseverance of women and the lengths to which they are willing to go to take care of their children, their friends, their loved ones, their fellow man.

This is a novel I would love to send out to people with a note attached saying: “This is what mothers go through for their children.” I am not a mother (yet) but I feel closer to the idea of motherhood than I ever have been. It is a scary thought, just to consider the motherhood option, much less being a mother in a war-torn country, where bombs have been raining down since the 1980s, and oppression inside the home, for some, has been a mainstay for time immemorial.  But in many ways, motherhood in this novel is a blessing. It is a way to find and create unconditional love. That is motherhood. Unconditional love and the endurance of suffering.  Motherhood is suffering from the beginning if you think about it: birth is painful. Love hurts and causes suffering. Death hurts and causes suffering. Life is suffering. Motherhood is life. Motherhood is suffering.

Rosasharn and Laila have a lot in common. Rosasharn breastfeeds a dying stranger to give him nourishment when she can give literally nothing else to the world. But she can give life, and she does without flinching, without hesitating, without being asked. And Laila endures the unimaginable in her unanesthetized caesarian delivery of Zalmai. All for life. All for the love of life. All hard to believe because “we” have not had the opportunity to be faced with such options. This is the core. This is the base the ethicists refer to. This is the factor-X we attempt to understand and describe. It is there, when all else is stripped away and there are no other choices to be made. But choice is still present.

I feel sorry for the women in this novel. They have been exploited and abused by men. But some of the men in this novel have redeeming qualities, and the choices they have made have been tainted by cultural expectations.  Rasheed represents the bottom of the barrel (selfish, patriarchal, violent, hiding behind the comforts of cultural convenience, oppressive), Jalil represents a step above that (compassionate with the unfortunate circumstance of having internalized certain cultural limitations), and Tariq represents the ideal: love for love’s sake, unconditional, enduring, long-suffering, truly compassionate.  The reader sees them all: the ‘regular’ men of the Afghanistan described by Hosseini. The reader doesn’t get a good glimpse of the men behind the wars, but then again, the bombs and the killings are just about all we need to understand them.

I think it’s important that we see regular people doing regular things, whatever they may be for their particular place and time. These are my favorite types of novels because regular people read these books and glean something out of them to use in their regular, everyday lives.

What do I take from this book? A sense of comfort that when I disagree with my husband, he doesn’t punch me square in the chest and shove a pistol in my mouth. A sense of anxiety that though my personal reality is basically thriving, the world around me is moving at such a pace that its suffering isn’t noticed over the speeches and the outbursts and the rhetoric. A sense of resolution about motherhood: that whatever suffering is required, will be endured for the love of life and of love.  A sense of understanding that suffering is part of the human condition.

The Stranger, Camus (1942)

I haven’t updated this blog with my readings lately. For what reason, I know not, because I have been reading a lot since my last post.

So we’ll start with the most recent. I just finished The Stranger. It reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, although Spark’s novel was published in 1970.  So I should say that now that I’ve read The Stranger, The Driver’s Seat reminds me of it!  I’ll get to that more in a bit.

I was impressed with the poesy of Matthew Ward’s translation of The Stranger. His introduction states that he maintained the integrity of Camus’ short sentences. This tactic speaks well against the curtness of Meursault’s character because he gets to the point and merely says what’s on his mind in the shortest way possible, because that’s natural. 

Meursault reminds me of Lise (or Lise reminds me of Meursault) from The Driver’s Seat because both are apathetic to the world around them, and seemingly detached from what the reader would perceive as the real world, or a more fitting perception of reality. I sometimes think that we all assume that everyone has the same basic sense of reality but it is the great authors who remind us that is not the case.

In Lise’s case, she is an automoton; she works in an office, keeps a meticulously sterile apartment, and seemingly has no “life.” She would not be classified as a loser, per se, but she is definitely not on the high end of the scale of those who relish life, or even pay attention to it, on a daily basis.  Meursault is the same, he seems to go through his life without ever stopping to smell the roses. His interactions with Marie, his girlfriend-fiance, are indicative of this. When she asks him to marry her, he says okay, but that if someone else was to ask him, he’d be just as likely to marry that girl too; he told her he didn’t love her but if she wanted to marry him, he would be fine with that.  His utter detachment from all emotions creates a major problem for him that he does not realize until he is in his cell for months.

The same for Lise: she is so detached from the world around her, from her own emotions and the emotions of others, that the reader has to wonder what is the point of even living. Well, that’s the point Spark is trying to make because Lise goes on a trip and her goal of this trip is to find someone to murder her. She finds someone to do it and the novel ends.

There are many literary characters that fit this m.o. of detachment and/or apathy toward life.  Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment comes to mind, but he is an intellectual in a bind.  Meursault and Lise are not intellectuals at all. They are part of the uber-mundane class who never tried to learn anything because they were so un-preoccupied with life.

Is it sad, the predicament Meursault is in? Not really. As he says, it’s normal. You kill someone, you go to jail and get your head lobbed off.  So what is the point?  Besides all of the existential mumbo jumbo you read about this novel, what else is happening? Sure, it’s about the potential for the non-existence of God and all that, but somewhere in the novel someone says to Meursault (I think it was the Magistrate) that even if you don’t believe God exists, you still believe in God. For to believe he doesn’t exist is to at least have considered he did.  Therefore he does. 

I’m going to consider this novel as a reminder that life should be appreciated and savored. Meursault and Lise did not do either, and they lost out.

I would also like to mention that it is clear that characters like HBO’s Dexter Morgan, possess the same detachment and feigned emotion as Meursault does in this novel.  Part of Dexter’s training as a child was to feign emotions and to act normal. Meursault does the same thing, and his inner monologue gives him away throughout the novel.

By the end, Meursault has come to look forward to his moment of execution, and he hopes that the crowd of spectators will spew chants of hate at him for what he’s done.  I suppose it is because he lacks such emotion in his real life that he has come to at least appreciate the capacity for emotion in others. Ironically, the final scene is the only instance of emotion for Meursault (when he rages against the Chaplain), and that was an emotional outburst against an insistence that God exists. At least he feels strongly about something.