Since its foundation in 1747, Afghanistan has been subject to crushing poverty and economic mismanagement, foreign intervention by all the Great Powers, defilement by Islamic and other ideological extremisms, and only brief, seemingly accidental moments of stability. Despite its centrality in world politics, especially in the post 9/11 era, Afghanistan has evaded easy understanding. Or perhaps it’s better to say that we have evaded an easy understanding of Afghanistan.
How much does the average person know, or care, about this country? It is here that Australia has made its longest overseas military commitment, yet Australians seem to exhibit little curiosity for our involvement in Afghanistan, only redirecting our gaze when our politicians secretly fly in for a photo-shoot with the troops. Afghanistan seems too remote to warrant constant or close attention. Perhaps we only need reminding of its existence at crucial moments, like an invasion. Anyone slightly more interested in this country could become reasonably well informed through frequent media coverage, but you would only know about Afghan and NATO death counts, the corrupt Karzai government and timelines for military withdrawal. Yet, I’ve often felt that in keeping up to date I know more and more and still so little. It’s easy to lament media coverage. I don’t mean to suggest that the above things aren’t happening. But it doesn’t mean, however, that nothing else is. A kind of indifference is at work here: the salient facts and details are dutifully reported, but the lives of human individuals remain unexamined.
These ideas, I think, go some way in explaining the success of Khaled Hosseini, author of the wonderful novels The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and most recently, And The Mountains Echoed. Of course, his novels’ longstanding place on the bestseller lists should also be attributed to Hosseini’s gifts as a storyteller (which are considerable) and the literary tastes of the reading public (which are more creditable than often thought). I wonder, though, if something more is at work. Hosseini brings us the stories about Afghanistan unavailable in the media and in more scholarly work. In a curious twist, given that his medium is the fictional novel, he makes the news seem more real. Afghanistan ceases to be a place of unfathomable and distant complexity, but a country whose stories seem very near, and both profoundly and ordinarily human. His themes are familiar and identifiable: grief and guilt, atonement and punishment, the experience of families, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. The Kite Runner appeared in 2003, shortly after many in the West had woken up and found themselves supposedly at war in a country that they had forgotten existed. Anyone who looked for and demanded intelligibility in these circumstances would have been well served by Hosseini’s tale of guilt and redemption. And The Mountains Echoed surpasses Hosseini’s other novels, from a literary standpoint and its ability to illuminate and make real Afghanistan’s modern history. If you want to know Afghanistan, that is, know more than each day’s revised body count, imaginative literature might just more closely resemble real life.
“So then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one. Don’t either of you ask me for more.” These are a Father’s words to his two children, Abdullah and Pari, as they take rest while travelling from their lonesome village to the capital, Kabul. The Father’s story concerns Baba Ayub and his family, and a div – a demon-like creature who descends upon Afghan villages to steal children. Baba’s family is chosen and he must give up his favourite son, Qais. Wrecked by depression, anger and the long Afghan drought, Baba departs his village with the goal of hunting the div and reclaiming his son. Impressed by Baba’s fortitude, the div draws Baba into a pact: Baba can take his son back to the poverty stricken village where unimaginable hardship awaits or he can leave Qais with the div, and give him a full chance at a safe and happy life. Choosing the best for his son, Baba leaves, and is never permitted to see Qais again.
Fable and imagination soon become the reality of the novel. The Father relating the story has been beaten by hardship, too: “His eyes looked out on the same world as Mother’s had, and saw only indifference. Endless trial. Father’s world was unsparing. Nothing good came free. Even love. You paid for all things. And if you were poor, suffering was your currency.” The Mother, in contrast, is kind and bewildered by cruelty, yet the Father’s worldview is vindicated: his wife dies in childbirth before the story begins and, just like the fable, he must soon give up his daughter, Pari, to strangers in Kabul, where a better life might be available.
Hosseini, in a way, gives us “just the one” story, too. The fable mirrors the Father’s story, which echoes and reflects the many different narratives that follow. Other critics have remarked that And The Mountains Echoed reads more like a series of short stories with central characters merely wandering in and out. This observation seems to diminish, if only slightly, Hosseini’s achievement.
The separation of Pari and Abdullah form a centre, and myriad other stories and characters intersect and encounter one another, often in surprising and tragic ways. Hosseini skillfully manipulates form and time, and sets his characters’ actions against crucial moments in Afghanistan’s recent history. Hosseini takes us further back in time, and we meet the sisters Parwana and Masooma, whose separation echoes that of Pari and Abdullah. Another chapter takes the form of a letter written by Nabi, servant to the Wahdati family which took in Pari. Years and decades turn with the pages, as his life in Kabul is threatened and reshaped throughout the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the rise of the Taliban. The post-2001 invasion is seen through the eyes of two cousins, as they return to a place which doesn’t resemble home. Another chapter consists of a magazine interview with Nila Wahdati interspersed with fragments about her life in Paris, her estrangement from her husband back in Kabul, and her troubled relationship with Pari. Nila is one of the book’s most deeply flawed and interesting characters.
These stories, however, are not disparate elements of a grand work. They are the grand work. A number of themes hold together Hosseini’s creation. First, and simply, stand the relationships, and what happens when those relationships are broken, rendered impossible or absent entirely: Pari and Abdullah exist as part of one another and a tangible absence is felt by each during the decades after their separation, even when time has removed memories of the other: “there was in her life the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence.” Nila, however, is surrounded by relationships, but only in potentiality, never to give enough meaning to her life. Pari reflects: “All my life, she gave to me a shovel and said, Fill the holes inside of me.” Other characters and events bear similar, but no less sorrowful burdens, but I’ll say no more, so that the revelatory moments may belong to you and the characters.
Tragic circumstances put asunder these many relationships, but suffering chooses its victims with casual indifference. It isn’t calculated or divinely mandated. It just is. The decisions individuals make are made with hope, but there is no sure knowledge about their implications. Markos, a doctor working in Kabul, echoes Albert Camus’s absurdism in his reflection that “the world didn’t see the inside of you, that it didn’t care about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked behind skin and bone. It was as simple, as absurd, and as cruel, as that.”
These themes parallel and depart from Hosseini’s other works. In The Kite Runner, the kind and perfect Hassan is beaten and raped by thugs, an experience which breaks, but not irrevocably, his friendship with Amir, even if redemption arrives late. Mariam and Laila, the women of A Thousand Splendid Suns, are subject to scarcely imaginable suffering: they apologise for having been born women, Mariam is burdened with seven miscarriages, and for both, suffering is quietly endured. How unsettling to think that these few lives reflect thousands of real ones, or that many of these characters are the lucky ones, given that they manage to survive. For many, though, death might seem preferable.
In these first two novels, despite what he inflicts upon his characters, Hosseini provides meaningful and satisfying conclusions, which have a paradoxical effect: there is a slight wince at predictability, the endings’ contrived nature, but also a sense of powerful relief that such a positive resolution did arrive. Literature and real life may illuminate one another here, too. The Kite Runner landed on bookshelves in 2003, and it helped make Afghanistan intelligible to a public wondering why we were sending our soldiers there. Hosseini presented us the immiseration of Afghan society under the Taliban, and we sympathised with their victims. Around this time, just like in Hosseini’s stories, an improvement in the lives of the Afghans seemed at least imaginable. We saw the Taliban on the run, their beaten and broken victims emerging from the ruins ready to rebuild. We saw the return of exiles and refugees, finally able to go home. And those images, those amazing images of girls going to school. But these images faded, replaced with blood and violence as the Western intervention came to look like a mere transition from one painful hardship to another.
These circumstances, I think, must inform And The Mountains Echoed. In contrast to his previous works, Hosseini here offers little solace and resolution. This time, the familiar themes of guilt and sin seem, somehow, inexpiable. He doesn’t give us the endings we expect or want. The reader, however, is still left much more empowered through Hosseini’s skillful employment of dramatic irony. The reader can look across Hosseini’s creation, see the connections and puzzles that are denied to the characters. The final resolution, scarce though it is, is given to us rather than the characters, the ones who need it most.
Given the novel’s popularity and its positive critical reception, this seems to be enough. I think so, too, as the effect is a startling and wonderful one. Hosseini fosters an emotional and intellectual investment in fictional characters whose lives reflect real ones, an investment in people we don’t know, whose fates and struggles refuse to be a matter of indifference. Perhaps this, more than the marvellous storytelling, is Hosseini’s achievement. Obscured by the headlines on corruption and uncertainty stand the lives of real Afghans, those who quietly endure. At the very least, when we engage in Hosseini’s literary world, the platitudes we use to describe Afghanistan bear only some resemblance to the real thing, and those commonly employed words like heartbreaking and tragic come to seem pallid and banal.
And The Mountains Echoed
by Khaled Hosseini
Book Review: The Disaster Artist – My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made
I cannot recommend The Disaster Artist highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.
In 2003, the world of filmmaking was shaken to its very foundations. Bursting onto the scene and blinding the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood like a renegade supernova, was a film that went by the insipid title of The Room.
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made is a book all about the making of that film. For those who haven’t seen The Room, the basic synopsis boils down to a ‘love triangle’ plot, between a banker, Johnny, his fiancée, Lisa, and the best friend, Mark. There’s romance, betrayal, drama and finally tragedy. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong.
The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy might’ve won all eleven Academy Awards that year, but it was The Room that still managed to be the talk of the town (and eventually, the world) amongst many filmgoers.
Don’t be mistaken, The Room wasn’t a sleeper hit or master class in filmmaking. In fact, it was the complete opposite. A train wreck so disastrous that it’s still being watched, studied and talked about, to this day. “So bad it’s good” and “The Citizen Kane of bad films” are quotes often thrown around whenever The Room is muttered.
What makes The Room so bad? Well, to put it bluntly, everything. From the acting to the directing, to the sets and continuity, is a consistency of abysmal filmmaking. Yet despite its terribleness, there remains a kind of loveable charm. Most of this charm seems to stem from the man who helmed the project, the weirdly fascinating and enigmatic, Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau was responsible for acting as the lead character, Johnny, writing, directing and producing The Room (Orson Welles, eat your heart out).
Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book, The Disaster Artist, doesn’t start at the premier of The Room in Los Angeles, 2003. It starts instead a year earlier, with a lunch between Greg and Tommy, a lunch so bizarre and off-the-wall, that it almost reads like sketch comedy. It’s a day before official production is about to begin on The Room, and Tommy with genius-gusto, decides to offer Greg one of the lead roles in his film, as Mark, Johnny’s (Tommy’s character and fictionalized version of himself) best friend. A plan so flawless, until Greg reminds Tommy that the role is already cast.
In the next chapter, we are taken back to 1998 in San Francisco with Jean Shelton and her acting class, where Greg relates his early origins into acting and his dreams of “making it”. It’s here that he meets the one-and-only, Tommy Wiseau, for the very first time. They’d later on become acquainted with one-another, after Tommy steals the show by giving one of the most ludicrous renditions of the famous ‘Stella’ scene from A Streetcar Named Desire ever witnessed.
“Most bad performances are met with silence. This was something else. There were murmurs. There were giggles. Everyone in that basement studio knew they had just witnessed one of the most beautifully, chaotically wrong performances they would ever see.”
– The Disaster Artist
What follows throughout the book is parallel storytelling, or intersecting storylines. One side focusing on the making of The Room, and the haphazard tyrannical way in which Tommy went about acting, directing and interacting with the cast and crew. The other, on the growing friendship and relationship between a young, Greg Sestero and not-so-young, Tommy Wiseau, both bonding on their dream and love for acting (and in particular, James Dean). Each storyline is as equally entertaining, funny and at times touching as one another.
The Disaster Artist is a book that doesn’t quite feel like it’s written from someone with journalistic prose looking-in on The Room, or the life of Tommy Wiseau. Instead, it’s a book written by someone who lived and breathed these experiences and moments. The final result is a raw and believable account, with a striking amount of humility and sincerity. The praise in this regard goes solely to Greg Sestero; he is quite possibly the best—and only—person capable of telling this story. His perspective is paramount to understanding the making of The Room, and Wiseau.
In terms of the content itself, there are many reasons why fans—or even those unfamiliar with The Room—might want to pick this up. For years, people have been baffled about almost every aspect of this film and the mysterious man behind it. From, “How did Tommy manage to get $6 million to fund this film?” to something as simple as “Just where in the hell is Tommy actually from?”
You don’t have to be familiar with the film itself, or even know a great deal about the players such as Tommy Wiseau to find this book enjoyable. After all, driving the engines is a timeless story, full of great characters and great moments.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.
The Disaster Artist
by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
(Simon & Schuster)
Book Review: Birth School Metallica Death – Volume 1: The Biography
Nothing Else Matters. Literally.
In December 2013, when six of the world’s continents could no longer accommodate Lars Ulrich’s ego, Metallica made history by playing a gig at an Argentine research station in Antarctica. The band also, however, gave its fans an early Christmas present and made the Freeze ‘Em All concert available online free of charge.
This double-sided, complex character of arguably the world’s best-known metal band has been one of Metallica’s defining elements – Metallica is both grandiose and generous, seminal and self-absorbed. This duality has found expression everywhere: critical and commercial success versus fabulous flops (remember Lulu?), pioneers of the thrash metal genre versus contemptible, self-indulgent sell-outs. James Hetfield’s dark lyrical ruminations have also given Metallica an intellectual quality absent in other heavy metal groups; this quality only presents itself, however, when Lars Ulrich stops verbalizing his every thought.
As you can see, I can throw quite a few things at Metallica, both positive and negative. However, I could never accuse Metallica of being boring, which, unfortunately, is the first adjective I reached for when reading Volume 1 of the group’s biography written by veteran music journalists Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood and narcissistically titled, Birth School Metallica Death.
A slight qualification is necessary here. Volume 1 covers the band’s early years until the Black album, and there are moments of great writing and intrigue. The authors make an admirable examination of the childhoods of each band member and find, unsurprisingly, that hardship, loneliness and family strife ensured that music became the only solace available. The memorable phrase “hormonal clusterfuck of adolescence” wonderfully captures Hetfield’s isolation and aloofness, when social acceptance and popularity were still a long way off.
The authors’ exploration of the band’s formation and early struggles is also quite interesting. The intellectual merit I associated with Metallica at the outset was, at this point, somewhat rudimentary: Metallica’s forerunner, Leather Charm, produced the risibly titled, ‘Hades Ladies’. Had Ulrich and Hetfield chosen something else from their proposed list of band names, like say, Thunderfuck, it’s doubtful they would have found the same level of success.
Such deft humor and interest quickly become scarce and are smothered by the laudatory sentiment the authors adopt – the sense of destiny that Metallica was always going to become the world’s greatest metal group: Metallica’s “ascendancy seems inevitable to the point of being preordained.” The group’s originality is staggering, as they “had begun their journey not so much on a road less traveled as on a thoroughfare entirely of their own making.” This may flirt with the truth, but its painful repetition soon becomes tiresome.
The authors’ choice of subject matter is frustrating in parts. They spend far too long on tedious subjects and give scant attention to more complex themes. The tales of tour debauchery quickly exhaust their interest, while parts of Metallica history suggesting that the band is fallible receive just casual mention. This includes the band’s poor treatment of original bassist Ron McGovney and the cruelty visited upon Jon Zazula, the tireless producer responsible for the band’s early success. The authors seem to dismiss this as a positive, almost necessary cruelty that enabled Metallica’s advance to stardom. (The exception here is a semi-decent glance at Metallica’s conduct towards Jason Newsted, who comes across quite well.)
The end result of all this is a biography that reads like an extended schoolyard discourse on why Metallica is the greatest band ever and why all other bands suck. This would have been an apt subtitle. It’s not enough to heap praise on (almost) everything the band has done; the authors feel the need to throw stones at the bands who didn’t reach Metallica’s success: Anthrax, Slayer, Ratt, and Scorpions all come in for criticism, or are presented standing in awe in Metallica’s vast commercial shadow. This doesn’t just seem misjudged, but pointless. The annoying, diehard Metallica fans who think that the four elements of the title truly comprise life will no doubt lap this up, but the more discriminating fans will be left discontented. If the authors had excised just some of the more congratulatory sentences, the book’s length could have been significantly reduced, rendering unnecessary Volume 2, due out this year, when we will probably be told that really, honestly, after the 12th listen, St Anger isn’t all that shit. It is. So is this book.
Birth School Metallica Death – Volume 1: The Biography
by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood
Published by: De Capo Press