The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini. 324 pages (2003) Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (Paper); London. ISBN: 0 7475 566533
It is rare to come across novels about Afghanistan, and when this book appeared on the new releases shelf at the library, I grabbed it. From start to finish it is a brilliant read by a very talented author and if I influence just one other person to give it a try Ill be happy.
A note at the back of the book says: Khaled Hosseini was born in Afghanistan and his family received political asylum in the USA in 1980. He is a doctor and lives in California. The Kite Runner is his first novel.
The above explains the sense of veracity which pervades the novel. Certain descriptions, scenes, aspects and insights that can only come from the perspective of someone who experienced them.
What its About
Setting: 1975 through 2001. Afghanistan. Pakistan. US.
The story begins with Amir (the narrator) looking back on his life, remembering his boyhood companion and servant, Hassan, and in particular a horrific incident in 1975 which changes their lives forever. Amir lives in the States now, but his origins lie in Afghanistan (which he flees with his father, a respected and wealthy businessman, after the Russian invasion).
In the early seventies Amir and Baba (dad) live in one of the most luxurious homes in Kabul. Ali, a long-time servant of the family and father of Hassan, has a modest mud dwelling on the property. Amir and Hassan, having lost their mothers at around the same time are looked after by the same wet-nurse. As children they are inseparable, although from different caste (Amir is a Pashtoon, Hassan is of the Hazara race, a people traditionally perceived as underdogs.
The boys are not friends in the strict sense of the word because of the class difference, but Hassan proves his friendship to Amir a thousand times over. In addition, he is the best kite runner in the neighbourhood. (A kite runner chases after an opponent's fallen kite during a tournament and retrieves it as a trophy.)
Amir is desperate to gain his fathers approval, but also very much aware of how he falls short of Babas expectations being a writer, not a fighter - much to his dads disgust. While Amir cringes in cowardice and fear of being beaten up by the local tough guys, Hassan takes them on even though he is too terrified. Thus Amir is torn between admiration for Hassans courage and annoyance at Babas open approval of his bravery.
One day, a shameful act is committed against twelve-year old Hassan, and Amir, a fearful, unwilling witness, does not intervene to help him. For the rest of his life, Amir tries unsuccessfully to forget the past but it continues to haunt him into adulthood. Hassan, although he knows that Amir was present and did nothing, remains loyal and devoted until the end.
Amirs sense of guilt and shame will continue to poison his life, until he can gather the courage to atone for his inaction. Until he finds a way to be good again.
How Its Done
Amir, as the protagonist, narrates most of the story: his childhood years, the escape to Pakistan at eighteen and his subsequent life in the USA are all shown from his perspective. Later, his fathers best friend recounts what has become of Hassan and his family, and the political events that have occurred in Afghanistan since Amirs departure. The final shift comes when Amir describes his return to Afghanistan in a mission to make things right.
Hosseinis prose is both concise and evocative. Imagery abounds, with the kites symbolizing the freedom and joy prevalent in Afghanistan before the advent of foreign domination and the imposition of Taliban rule. There are wonderful descriptions of everyday life in Kabul the markets and bazaars, the mosques, the food and celebrations of parties, the kite tournaments, and so on. On the other hand, there are some harrowing accounts of repression and injustice: in one scene, half time at a soccer game is used to stone two adulterers to death. The bodies are unceremoniously tossed into a truck and game resumes as normal.
The characters too, are memorable. Hassans goodness and humility, his loyalty and honesty will leave the reader moved beyond words. Here is a description of the young boy: I can still see [him] up on that tree, sunlight flickering through the leaves on his almost perfectly round face, a face like a Chinese doll chiseled from hardwood: his flat, broad nose and slanting, narrow eyes like bamboo leaves, eyes that looked, depending on the light, gold, green, even sapphire. I can still see his tiny low-set ears and that pointed stub of a chin, a meaty appendage that looked like it was added as a mere afterthought. And the cleft lip, just left of mid-line, where the Chinese doll makers instrument may have slipped, or perhaps he had simply grown tired and careless.
While Hassan undeniably gains the readers sympathy as a thoroughly good, pure character it is harder to like Amir, who frequently puts Hassan down, laughing at his illiteracy, making him do things he doesnt want to so as to prove his loyalty. Our antipathy towards Amir is mitigated though; he suffers greatly because of his cowardice, a mean streak in his nature and above all the failure to help his friend on that terrible day.
Baba, is a forceful identity who lives by his own code, scorning the religious zealots and trying to instill in his son a sense of identity and purpose. Women dont feature much here and when they do are generally shown to have a lesser status than men, even those living in the States.
Hosseini introduces lots of foreign words (always with a translation slipped in to help the reader) which add extra spice and authenticity. There is a strong sense of the importance of extended family, as well as respect for all traditional aspects of Afghani life, as when a suitors father asks the brides father for her hand (even in present-day America).
One of the things I really liked about this story was the way the author drops clues for the reader to ponder. There are many instances where a thread is left hanging or things are not said and at the end, when it all meshes together, one can see how beautifully the novel has been crafted.
This is a story about love and loyalty, sacrifice and betrayal, but above all, atonement. The reader will come away deeply touched and saddened, but also enriched and inspired.
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