Book Review: Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini’s Debut Novel Brings Fresh Humanity to a World Trapped in Political Cliche

Brotherhood  and Courage

Certain novels arrive on the booksellers’ shelves as a breath of fresh air. Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, is one of these. The first novel by an Afghani-American to be published in English, Kite Runner is a relief from the political and historical take of much of today’s fiction on the Middle East.

The book takes on a broad theme, of life and love, brotherhood and courage – or the lack thereof.  It begins in Afghanistan’s relatively liberal monarchy of the 1970s, briefly before a military coup and the Russian invasion would forever change the landscape of the once beautiful Kabul. While political developments initially remain in the backdrop, cultural issues of pre-war Afghanistan are presented up close and personal.

As the novel begins, protagonist, Amir, the son of a wealthy Sunni Pashtun businessman, is approaching manhood. His peer, friend and servant, Hassan, belongs to the socially inferior group of Shia Hazaras, setting the stage for tensions that remain central to the story. Amir, Hassan, and their fathers live together in a well-off neighborhood of Kabul. The Hazaras act as servants to their Pashtun superiors, but are also part of the family, clashing with the social norm.

Amir’s father, affectionately dubbed “Baba,” treats Hassan as a second son and Amir is torn between feelings of awe and hatred for his noble father. Similarly, his conflicting jealousy and admiration of Hasan constantly put their “friendship” on edge — Hassan’s righteousness being the single factor that holds the relationship together. The author describes the household’s complicated family dynamics vividly.

Fiction has few characters as utterly loathsome as Amir. Hosseini takes on envy, hatred, and iniquity, bringing the reader to identify with a character so despicable that they shudder to recognise their own empathy. The opening chapters create an atmosphere that promise to be a much-needed deviation from typical narratives of heroism and goodness.

Amir’s character can also be read as a version of the author’s younger self; some experiences seem too vivid to be imagined.

One winter day in the mid 1970s, after the kite tournament of the title, Amir’s spinelessness reaches its peak when he refuses to help Hassan in his darkest hour. This event leads to the end of the “happy family” and sows the seeds of self-hatred that will grow in Amir as he becomes a man, creating an ever-widening divide between himself and his father.

While chaos engulfs Afghanistan, the story jumps ahead several years, as Amir and his father flee the Soviets and seek asylum in America. Hosseini covers the difficulties of being uprooted and the feelings of alienation experienced in leaving one’s homeland. However, the emotional development of the characters is more central to the plot.

In America, there is a role reversal. The once successful Baba can only find work at a gas station, while his son integrates himself with ease and becomes an English major and later, a respected writer.  As the story builds to the climax, the anticipated theme of redemption becomes evident — one of the few predictable segments in the novel.

“There is a way to be good again,” is the advice given by an elder during a life-altering phone call from Pakistan. Amir awakens from his comfortable life in Northern California to return to Afghanistan and rescue Hassan’s orphaned son.

The story takes nail-biting twists and turns, briefly adopting Dan Brown’s story-telling style. The final chapters, however, lack Browns optimism, as the plot once again takes on a darker nature. Amir succeeds in liberating the young boy and bringing him to America, only to watch helplessly as the boy becomes suicidal and silent. He longs for his old life which Amir is unable to offer him, and the very life Amir may be responsible for ruining.

As Hosseini brings the novel to a close, his conclusions are explained in an old Zendagi Minzara saying: “Life goes on, unmindful of beginning or end… crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow dusty caravan of kochis.”

Hosseini may have achieved a political goal by humanising a region still obscure in Western thought. He describes Afghanistan and its inhabitants as once very modern, before outside forces rendered the nation a war-torn catastrophe. However, war and political conflict take the back seat to the human dramas that occur because of and — more importantly — despite of such events.  The author’s simple language is surprisingly effective in explaining the complexity of emotions, characters and dynamics which could exist in any culture.

This is a vivid book – other novels pale in comparison – one that one puts down with a sigh and wishes were longer. Hosseini’s protagonist may be cowardly, but the novel itself is full of courage.

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