I had almost decided not to read The Kite Runner. Too many glowing recommendations about its power and emotion. And almost three pages of clippings from various reviews before the story began. If you’re teetering on the brink of reading this novel, it has my wholehearted recommendation. It’s every bit as good as people have said.
Beginning in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner traces the friendship between Amir and Hassan, two little boys who grow up in the same household. Amir is the son of the owner of the house, and Hassan the son of the servant. Even though they spend their formative years together, and Amir acknowledges the closeness between them, he will not come out and call Hassan a friend because of their religious upbringing. Having both been motherless since birth, they even fed from the breast of the same nursemaid, which Amir claims creates a particular kind of bond between them.
However, all of that changes when Amir and Hassan win a kite tournament. Desperate to win the affections of his incredibly distant father, Amir dispatches Hassan to ‘run’ the losing kite. When Hassan is gone for longer than usual, Amir tries to find him to discover the boy has been cornered by local bullies. Amir is faced with publicly backing his friend and risking retribution from the bullies, or turning a blind eye. He flees the scene and Hassan is horrifically raped by an Afghan boy of German descent. It’s a harrowing scene, and one that sticks in Amir’s memory. It’s brought to the surface many times in the book through Amir’s guilt at his cowardice.
Where do we go from there? The story unfolds in a tragic pattern, following the events of Afghanistan’s downfall as much as Amir’s own descent. He doesn’t just betray Hassan once. He tries his utmost to have Hassan and his father ejected from the house – to the point of planting evidence that Hassan had stolen his birthday money. I can’t recall ever feeling so mortified at the actions of the narrator of a story.
As the tension in Afghanistan mounts, Amir and his father – Baba – leave the country for a new life in America. Even when being smuggled out of the country, Baba’s bravery acts as a counterpoint for Amir’s cowardice. Baba stands up to a Russian soldier who is suggesting that he take a female refugee for “half an hour” in payment for letting the refugees pass. Baba defends the woman’s honour, even with a semi-automatic pointed at his chest. But Amir is irked by his bear-wrestling, alpha male father showing the kind of bravery he failed to.
In America, their relationship becomes more equal, as Baba struggles to adjust to life there – reduced to the role of a gas station manager compared to his formerly affluent lifestyle. Even then though, migrant Afghans are respectful of him because of his reputation in their home country. It’s just the Americans who fail to understand his difficulties. Amir, however, takes the opportunity to put his past behind him and leaves the shame of betraying Hassan.
Baba is diagnosed with cancer and arranges for a marriage between Amir and Soraya. After Baba dies, the pair try unsuccessfully to have a child. This turns out to have an ironic twist later in the story.
When Amir is called back to Afghanistan by an old family friend, he learns some harsh truths about his family. It turns out that Baba was Hassan’s father too – having impregnated Ali’s wife to maintain his servant’s honour. Ali was sterile. Worse yet, Hassan had married and had a child (where Amir and Soraya could not) and had lived well until the Taliban moved into the area. Hassan was shot in the street and killed and his wife too, when she came out to attack his killers. Hassan’s son Sohrab was left an orphan. And that’s what Amir is called home for – to rescue the boy and find him a home.
So Amir’s journey back to Afghanistan is like facing his failures all over again. He has no father to chastise for keeping the secret of a brother from him. There’s no gleeful reunion with Hassan, no way for Amir to apologise for his failure all those years ago.
Hosseini doesn’t sugar-coat the story at this point. He takes Amir on a journey through a destroyed country, fundamentally different from when he last saw it. He makes the situation even more ugly, if you can believe it. The man who has taken Sohrab is the very person who raped Hassan all those years ago. Assef, who preached about the joys of Hitler to Amir as a child, has joined the Taliban and has joined in ethnic cleansing programmes against the Hazara.
If Amir is to take Sohrab away, he must fight Assef. In a way it’s Amir’s opportunity for atonement. But he’s not a fighter and takes a horrible beating at Assef’s hands. In a moment of pure poetry, it is Hassan’s son, repeating Hassan’s threat from years ago – to shoot out Assef’s eye with a catapult – that stops the murderous attack, not Amir himself. Amir almost throws the fight – although admittedly he hasn’t ever had a fight in his life – but it’s the fact that Hassan’s son steps in and ends the confrontation that works for me.
To continue recapping the story would spoil it for those of you who haven’t read the book. I’ll leave it there for plot details.
One of the most different and compelling books I’ve read in years, The Kite Runner is a story told to a Western audience of a culture almost completely foreign to them. I swallowed up the little references to Afghani customs and daily life as much as I did the story itself. Even the revealing tales of the refugee community in the United States made for fascinating reading.
The story is so horrific in places, my wife almost abandoned the book when she read the rape scene. However, Hosseini touches on the drama and tragedies in human life with a strangely philosophical tone that draws your onward through the text. On the other hand, he doesn’t try to make the story perfect – the fact that Hassan dies before Amir returns to Afghanistan means he can never apologise for the things he did. Worse, when he discovers Hassan is his brother, Hassan is dead and so is their father – Amir can never reconnect with them on the strength of this new information. I found some of these things the most heartbreaking of all.
I found a surprising dislike for Amir through the book. He always seemed to drop out of everything that required courage. Like defending Hassan, or actually fighting Assef. Even with the relatively bureaucratic process of adopting Hassan’s son, he fails rather than fights. And this leads directly to Sohrab’s suicide attempt. When an Afghani commented that perhaps Amir was always just a tourist in Afghanistan, I felt it was a real comment on the weakness of Western culture – that Amir was better suited to a detatched, democratic lifestyle where you could donate through a telethon but never help anyone directly. Take the example of Baba standing up to the Russian soldier to defend a woman’s honour, but failing to integrate into American society later on. Amir’s experience was almost the opposite.
Perhaps the bravest choice by the author was not to go for the ‘happily ever after’ ending. Amir takes Sohrab to the USA, sure. But Sohrab is traumatised and doesn’t speak for a year and doesn’t interact. The book ends with Amir making the tiniest bit of headway in connecting with the boy but there’s clearly a lot of work to do. Sohrab may never be ‘normal’ or healed. He may never live up to Amir and Soraya’s dreams of a child.
Still, despite overwhelming odds, The Kite Runner manages to stir something in the soul. It may be that Khaled Hosseini has tapped into a way of letting us realise we do the same thing – do we stand by and allow injustices to happen and justify it with excuses?
The characters are exceptionally well drawn. From those opening words about Baba, Hassan, Ali and Rahim Khan, you’ll grow to care about those people, their lives and their outcomes. And throughout the book, all the people whose lives impact on Amir’s childhood are brought back and we’re given closure on each one. Hassan’s execution and Ali’s death by land mine are a stark reminder of the deadly regimes that reigned over Afghanistan while Amir was in the relative safety and comfort of America. I knew this was a work of fiction when I started reading, but it could have easily been a biographical piece, and that’s why I have more of an emotional investment in the characters than I would with an ordinary book.
The Kite Runner, for me, has to be one of the most profound and beautifully written books I’ve read in years. It’s not my normal reading material either, but I’ll be swiftly following up with a reading of Hosseini’s next book, A Thousand Splendid Suns.