Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty turns to fiction only rarely, usually as a relaxing mental escape. But he miscalculated when he picked up A Thousand Splendid Suns, a harrowing story of survival in modern Afghanistan, written by Afghan émigré Khaled Hosseini, who also wrote The Kite Runner.
The book was emotionally draining. It made him weep when he got to the last pages as he sat on a plane. But it was exhilarating, so much so that he had to read it again, savoring its power a while longer. The book’s emotional impact—its testimony to human tragedy and resilience—struck deep with this trained psychologist and scholar. He is still sorting out the experience.
“From Hosseini’s writing you get a sense of how devastating the wars and conflicts play out at the individual level,” he says. “Our view of Afghan history is from 30,000 feet, if not higher, and we don’t appreciate the culture that emerged there so many centuries ago—and how much of it has been lost or forgotten now. What we lose sight of in our discussions of Afghanistan is the impact of events on the lives of real women, men and children.”
The novel traces the destiny and friendship of two Afghan women who are married to the same difficult man in the years before Taliban rule. The book dramatizes the abuse the women face, their suffering in war, and how their family commitments survive. The story unfolds amid the nation’s fierce convulsions from the time of the Soviet aggression in the 1980s to Taliban domination and post-Taliban reconstruction after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
For McCarty, one powerful theme is the history of a proud, multi-ethnic culture and its ruin. To the world, the emblem of that dismantling of Afghan history came in March 2001, when the Taliban destroyed two towering Buddhist statues, artifacts nearly 2,000 years old.
“With so many Afghan refugees now, the question is, ‘How does a country bring back its most talented people and restore that culture?’ ” McCarty says.
He was forcefully gripped by the plight of the book’s two female characters, their hope of endurance despite staggering misfortune in a patriarchal society ripped apart by warlords and repression.
“Each makes a decision that puts her life in her control,” he says. “These women are not simply controlled by external forces. Neither allows herself to be a victim. It’s a tribute to the author that he could write about women in such a compelling way.”
McCarty, a Virginia native, was named Vanderbilt provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs in 2008. He joined Vanderbilt in 2001 as professor of psychology and dean of the College of Arts and Science. McCarty could cite other books that recently held his interest, including David McCullough’s John Adams, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Michel Carmona’s Haussmann: His Life and Times, and the Making of Modern Paris, and also a study entitled “The Governance of Teaching Hospitals.”
But he remains haunted by an Afghan tale of the fragility of culture, the courage of the human spirit, and the flesh-and-blood consequences of ideology and statecraft.
“All of us have lost something in the last 40 years because of the suffering and turmoil in that country,” McCarty says.
photo credit: John Russell