In the first chapter of And the Mountains Echoed, an impoverished Afghan worker, Saboor, tells his two children, Abdullah and Pari, a story about a farmer, Baba Ayub, who’s forced to sacrifice his beloved child, Qais, to a monster called the div. Baba Ayub does so, and then is horrified by his own callous choice to murder his own son. Yet the div gives him a way of fighting his own guilt and pain: a small bottle that allows him to forget Qais altogether. Even after Baba Ayub drinks from the bottle, however, he has brief, fleeting memories of his son.
As the opening chapter suggests, And the Mountains Echoed is a book about the relationship between time, memory, and forgetting. To be human is to make decisions—some of which are extremely difficult. The power to forget is thus one of humanity’s most powerful survival mechanisms. If we didn’t have the power to slowly forget our actions over time, we would spend our entire lives full of grief and self-hatred. And yet, as the story of Baba Ayub indicates, forgetting isn’t always totally effective: we will always remember bits and pieces of the past, particularly about the people we love most. The novel asks then asks if it’s ever really possible to forget the people we love most. When is it better to remember, and when is it useful to forget? Is forgetting ever a choice?
In a sense, And the Mountains Echoed is a novel about the conflict between love and forgetfulness. Although there are many different characters and stories in the book, arguably the “central” story (the story Hosseini begins with, and to which he returns at the end) is that of Pari and her brother Abdullah, who are separated at a young age. Abdullah spends most of his life remembering his beloved younger sister—he even names his child after her. While Pari’s memories of Abdullah are less clear (she was only four years old when they were separated), she remembers him decades later. The siblings’ love for one another is so powerful that time and forgetfulness can’t destroy it.
It’s tempting to think of forgetfulness as the “villain” of the novel: the force that threatens and sometimes destroys love. Yet it’s important to keep in mind that, sometimes, forgetting can be a force for good. The characters in the novel endure enormous pain and tragedy, and if they didn’t have the power to forget, they’d have no way of healing and moving on with their lives. Thalia, a young woman who’s attacked by a dog as a young girl and sustains a horrible facial injury for most of her life, experiences bullying and cruelty for most of her adolescence. And yet as she grows up, she manages to move beyond this cruelty, even befriending some of the people who once bullied her. Although time doesn’t permit Thalia to forget her past entirely, it does allow her to forget some of the intensity of her pain, and gives her an opportunity to grow into a mature, happy adult.
In the end, And the Mountains Echoed offers a nuanced theory of time, memory, and forgetting. Sometimes it’s important to remember things—indeed, memory is often what gives life meaning, as in Abdullah’s case—but sometimes it’s also necessary to forget. In the end, for better or worse, forgetting often wins out. Even Abdullah, who faithfully remembers his little sister for decades, eventually succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, and forgets who Pari is.
Because memory is both flawed and extremely important, the novel concludes that art is especially vital to humanity. Many of the characters in the novel turn to some kind of art as a way of remembering the past: Mr. Markos with his photography, Abdullah with the yellow feather he keeps in memory of his sister, and perhaps even Hosseini with the novel itself. Humans don’t have perfect memories, but they do have the ability to preserve their memories in other ways: through conversation, art, and, above all, writing.
Time, Memory, Forgetting, and Art ThemeTracker
Time, Memory, Forgetting, and Art Quotes in And the Mountains Echoed
Your son does not remember you, the div continued. This is his life now, and you saw for yourself his happiness. He is provided here with the finest food and clothes, with friendship and affection. He receives tutoring in the arts and languages and in the sciences, and in the ways of wisdom and charity. He wants for nothing. Someday, when he is a man, he may choose to leave, and he shall be free to do so. I suspect he will touch many lives with his kindness and bring happiness to those trapped in sorrow.
“You are a cruel beast,” Baba Ayub said.
When you have lived as long as I have, the div replied, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.
He didn’t understand why he should hear such a noise, alone in the dark, all the sheep and goats sleeping. Sometimes he told himself he had heard no such thing, and sometimes he was so convinced to the contrary that he called out into the darkness, “Is someone out there? Who is there? Show yourself.” But no reply ever came. Baba Ayub didn’t understand. Just as he didn’t understand why a wave of something, something like the tail end of a sad dream, always swept through him whenever he heard the jingling, surprising him each time like an unexpected gust of wind. But then it passed, as all things do. It passed.
He wished he could love his new mother in the same way. And perhaps Parwana, he thought, secretly wished the same, that she could love him. The way she did Iqbal, her one-year-old son, whose face she always kissed, whose every cough and sneeze she fretted over. Or the way she had loved her first baby, Omar. She had adored him.
Father sat down by the remains of the fire. “Where did you go?” “Go to sleep, boy.” “You wouldn’t leave us. You wouldn’t do that, Father.” Father looked at him, but in the dark his face dissolved into an expression Abdullah couldn’t make out. “You’re going to wake your sister.” “Don’t leave us.” “That’s enough of that now.”
She hunkered down beside him now, her glasses pushed up on her hair. There was wetness in her eyes too, and when she dabbed at them with the handkerchief, it came away with black smudges. “I don’t blame you if you hate me. It’s your right. But—and I don’t expect you to understand, not now—this is for the best. It really is, Abdullah. It’s for the best. One day you’ll see.”
But there was no forgetting. Pari hovered, unbidden, at the edge of Abdullah’s vision everywhere he went. She was like the dust that clung to his shirt. She was in the silences that had become so frequent at the house, silences that welled up between their words, sometimes cold and hollow, sometimes pregnant with things that went unsaid, like a cloud filled with rain that never fell. Some nights he dreamed that he was in the desert again, alone, surrounded by the mountains, and in the distance a single tiny glint of light flickering on, off, on, off, like a message. He opened the tea box. They were all there, Pari’s feathers, shed from roosters, ducks, pigeons; the peacock feather too. He tossed the yellow feather into the box. One day, he thought.
A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later. But I suppose I ought to begin this tale with the same thing that ends it.
Now, I knew from the start that the marriage was an unhappy one. Rarely did I see a tender look pass between the couple or hear an affectionate word uttered. They were two people occupying the same house whose paths rarely seemed to intersect at all.
As you can see enclosed in the envelope along with this letter is my will, in which I leave the house, the money, and my few belongings to her. I ask that you give her both this letter and the will. And please tell her, tell her that I cannot know the myriad consequences of what I set into motion. Tell her I took solace only in hope. Hope that perhaps, wherever she is now, she has found as much peace, grace, love, and happiness as this world allows.
He is not a criminal. Everything he owns he has earned. In the nineties, while half the guys he knew were out clubbing and chasing women, he had been buried in study, dragging himself through hospital corridors at two in the morning, forgoing leisure, comfort, sleep. He had given his twenties to medicine. He has paid his dues. Why should he feel badly? This is his family. This is his life.
In the last month, Roshi has become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection has frayed. The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital, so urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its power. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized him for what it really was, an illusion, a mirage.
Well, it’s hardly a mystery, mon amour, Maman had said. You miss your father. He is gone from your life. It’s natural that you should feel this way. Of course that’s what it is. Come here. Give Maman a kiss. Her mother’s answer had been perfectly reasonable but also unsatisfactory. Pari did believe that she would feel more whole if her father was still living, if he were here with her. But she also remembered feeling this way even as a child, living with both her parents at the big house in Kabul.
Adel knew he would not love his father again as he had before, when he would sleep happily curled in the bay of his thick arms. That was inconceivable now. But he would learn to love him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business. Adel could almost feel himself leapfrogging over childhood. Soon, he would land as an adult. And when he did, there would be no going back because adulthood was akin to what his father had once said about being a war hero: once you became one, you died one.
“You’ve made me proud, Markos.”
I am fifty-five years old. I have waited all my life to hear those words. Is it too late now for this? For us? Have we squandered too much for too long, Mamá and I? Part of me thinks it is better to go on as we have, to act as though we don’t know how ill suited we have been for each other. Less painful that way. Perhaps better than this belated offering. This fragile, trembling little glimpse of how it could have been between us. All it will beget is regret, I tell myself, and what good is regret? It brings back nothing. What we have lost is irretrievable.
And so Baba’s little sister, Pari, was my secret companion, invisible to everyone but me. She was my sister, the one I’d always wished my parents had given me. I saw her in the bathroom mirror when we brushed our teeth side by side in the morning. We dressed together. She followed me to school and sat close to me in class—looking straight ahead at the board, I could always spot the black of her hair and the white of her profile out of the corner of my eye.
I hold the note tightly against the blustering wind. I read for Pari the three scribbled sentences. They tell me I must wade into waters, where I will soon drown. Before I march in, I leave this on the shore for you. I pray you find it, sister, so you will know what was in my heart as I went under. There is a date too. August 2007.
“August of 2007,” I say. “That’s when he was first diagnosed.” Three years before I had even heard from Pari.
She turns her face to look at him, her big brother, her ally in all things, but his face is too close and she can’t see the whole of it. Only the dip of his brow, the rise of his nose, the curve of his eyelashes. But she doesn’t mind. She is happy enough to be near him, with him—her brother—and as a nap slowly steals her away, she feels herself engulfed in a wave of absolute calm.