A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini and Harmattan, by Gavin Weston
Okay, so chronologically these are not my two most recent readings. I finished Harmattan today but I can’t remember how long it’s been since I read A Thousand Splendid Suns. These days I recall events as “before and after the move” so I am sure I read it last year before October, before we moved to this part of Northern Ireland.
Both stories take place in the Muslim world (Afghanistan for A Thousand Splendid Suns, Nigeria for Harmattan), in countries ridden by war, poverty, and death.
Both novels revolve around young girls whose lives are maimed by their unfortunate circumstances: war and the Afghan society’s prejudices in Mariam’s case; illness and the Nigerian society’s inability to look after its innocents, in Haoua’s case.
In both cases, the girls are left without their mothers’ tender presence and vigilant protection from a young age, to the mercy of ruthless, uncaring, selfish fathers who perceive them as offsprings, but not as in the definition “a child of particular parentage” but as in “products” to be sold for their own profit.
Both girls become, unsurprisingly, victims of sickening marital abuse and end up, in their despair, butchering their tormentors/husbands. Mariam is an older version of Haoua or, if you want to reverse the equation, Haoua never allows herself to grow into Mariam and ends the abuse much sooner.
The ultimate relief out of their circumstances is DEATH, for Mariam in front of a Taliban platoon, for Haoua rotting slowly in a putrid jail cell. No redemption and no redeemer…
Harmattan starts deceptively with the description of the day-to-day, “normal” life of a young, innocent Nigerian girl and her family. What drew my attention to the book in the first place was actually the fact that Haoua, the young protagonist, has as pen pals and sponsors a family from Northern Ireland, from a village not far from where we live at the moment! But that’s where niceties of civilised life start and end really, with this book: the delicacy of character and feeling is literally drowned by the series of events that follow. As I continued to read the book I realised that there was more to this book than what met the furtive glance: this was the story of an African girl from a white man’s perspective. Haoua narrates the story herself but she does so uncharacteristically for a twelve year old, maturely and with great dignity. As a girl who grew up in communist Romania where little value was put on human dignity I found this perspective refreshing, healing even. This book proved to be, surprisingly, a trip down the memory lane that has righted some long inflicted wrongs. But in all honesty, this book “feels” to the reader as one written from the outsider’s, civilised man’s perspective and its faith in the human decency is refreshing, yet slightly unbecoming of the story’s unfolding tragedy at times.
On the other hand, A Thousand Splendid Suns is written from a much more realistic and down to earth point of view. The tragedy is portrayed through an almost clinical eye and nothing leads you on to believe there will be anything but sorrow under the tragic circumstances. I recognise the perspective as I was raised under Communism with the same mentality: life is the way it is, accept it! It’s a prevalent doctrine characteristic to all nations who suffered indoctrination and dictatorship. It’s a doctrine that permeated life in all its aspects and can’t be shaken off because it was inoculated in one’s heart early in life. I can relate to Hosseini’s point of view easier because I’m more familiar to it.
I suppose both books support simple truths that my mum passed on to us from when we were young:
-children are best looked after by their own mummies and I truly hope God will grant me the health and the means to raise and enjoy my child.
-when nations collapse the first to suffer are the innocent, the children and the women.
-beware of people who have nothing to lose, even if they appear weak and their spirit broken!
-education is important, even if the ignorant tell you otherwise, they are only supporting their own weakness!
-the human heart has the incredible ability to love despite the worst adversities and to hate with withering strength, sometimes all at once!