Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

Source of book: Library

This is the third book I have read in the last five years with a significant connection to Islam. I started with The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie; read in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon hullaballoo as a personal protest against fatawa. (Plural of fatwa – I looked it up.) The second was Thy Hand, Great Anarch, by Nirad C. Chaudhury, which I previously reviewed in detail. I highly recommend both of these books. The Kite Runner is the third of these.

Hosseini sets his novel in the period from 1975 through the aftermath of 9-11, a period which saw the fall of the monarchy in Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda , and eventually, the continuing battle in that country.

A native of Afghanistan the same approximate age as his protagonist, Hosseini writes of what he knows. Hosseini’s own life has a few similarities to the novel. His family left Afghanistan in the aftermath of the fall of the monarchy. He settled in the Bay Area, and eventually became an author. (Although he was a physician first – not a bad career to fall back on if the novel was a bust.)  Most importantly for this book, he had friendship with a Hazara which partially inspired the story.

What is a Hazara? This key fact drives the plot, and shines an unpleasant light on human nature. Afghanistan, like many nations, contains more than one ethnic group. For some reason, this is disturbing to our human nature, and it seems to inevitably result in problems, from basic racism to slavery to pogroms to civil war, all the way up to Hitler. The dominant group in Afghanistan was and is the Pashtun, with the Hazara a much loathed minority group. Probably of partial Chinese descent, they were viewed, unsurprisingly, like every other unpopular minority. The Taliban and its sympathizers are generally Pashtun, so of course it was necessary to slaughter and oppress the Hazara.

From my personal experience as an attorney, I can attest that every group on the face of the earth is racist to some degree or another. When I worked at GBLA, clients would claim that they knew we wouldn’t help them because they were (black, white, asian, Hispanic, Turkish even!). Some of those of Mexican descent would come in and complain about the dirty Central or South Americans. The Okies would complain about the Texans, and vice versa. Suffice it to say that the roaches in these United States are called German roaches, but the roaches in Germany are blamed on other countries as well.

How does this figure in The Kite Runner? Amir, a twelve year old Pashtun boy at the beginning of the story, is friends with Hassan, a Hazara boy who is the son of Amir’s father’s servant. Their friendship is inseparable until a horrific event occurs at the hands of a psychopathic older boy. Hassan is brutally assaulted, and Amir is unable to find the courage to do anything but run. Amir’s guilt causes him to make matters far worse. Eventually, he betrays his friend in a truly unforgivable manner.

Soon, the wars force a dramatic flight first to Pakistan and then to America, where Amir and his father experience poverty and disorientation. Amir finds true love, experiences success with his writing – and suddenly receives a call from an old friend summoning him back to Afghanistan by way of Pakistan. Amir is given a chance to face his past and redeem himself.

Further than that, I will not go, as the plot should not be spoiled. Hosseini writes a gripping tale with a tight and efficient plot, combining both a dramatic narrative and a compelling internal psychological struggle.

There are a few minor quibbles, of course. I found some of the use of coincidence and parallel imagery to be a bit much. In particular, I felt that the scar that Amir receives late in the book to be unnecessarily dramatic. The point would have been made without this extra touch. On the other hand, many of the parallels drawn by the author suit the purpose of the narrative. Furthermore, this is a common device in fiction, used by many of the all time great authors. It seems almost unfair to complain about it in a modern author simply because it has been done before.

Particularly effective in this book are the portrayal of the horrors of extended war and the havoc it causes in a formerly promising country. The utter crumbling of all social institutions from education to health, to basic food and water as the result of 20 years of civil and external war is painful to witness. The author is obviously no friend of the Taliban and its hypocritical use of violence for personal, and often senseless reasons.

Also effective was the author’s exploration of the nature of cowardice. Amir is a coward by nature, not training. He is physically incapable of heroism – a key point in the book. His body fails even to be minimally cooperative during the flight to Pakistan. Thus, cowardice is both a moral failing, and an indwelling state of being. This subtle portrayal prevents an easy judgment of Amir. He is clearly stretched beyond his capacity, and reacts initially in a mostly excusable way. However, his cowardice combined with his guilt to lead him down an ever more horrible course of action. Is this what happens when we experience fear? I have rarely felt a stronger combination of pity and revulsion toward any character in a book or in real life.   

I also found the open ended “ending” of the book to be intriguing. It would have been simple to have ended with either a saccharine sweet end, or a devastatingly bitter end. The author chooses what I consider a more realistic, and ultimately more thought provoking conclusion. The past cannot be undone, and the damage caused by others (or one’s self) cannot be erased by good motives or even good actions. The final ending is left to time and hope.

As a final point, I would add that the question of redemption is left unanswered in this book. Hosseini is honest in admitting that a present good action does not necessarily overcome a past evil action. The question is presented as to whether God will punish for the evil action or not. Can that evil be overcome? Is a later good stronger than an earlier evil? For the follower of Islam (and many others), the answer awaits the final weighing in the scales. For those of us with a belief in Christianity, the answer is that we can never overcome evil in and of ourselves. Christ himself is the one who has overcome evil. The sole hope for the future and for healing rests not within ourselves and our ability to redeem our pasts, but in the grace freely granted.

This book is well worth reading both for its exciting writing and for its deep questions. I would caution that this book does portray a depth of depravity that is disturbing. I myself was haunted a bit by a few passages that I doubt I will ever forget. The author effectively uses these events to create an unforgettable tale and a suggestion of the cowardice that tempts us all.


  1. Man, you have a little time to really analyze stuff! Well done! And I loved the book, too. Also, Hosseini's second book 'A Thousands Splendid Suns.' It really gives us something to think about.

  2. Reading and thinking go hand in hand. Combined, they make for an experience beyond passivity. It is even better when the experience of a book can be shared and discussed with others. Comment any time, and suggest other books. I expect to read Hosseini's other book in the future - a promising author to be sure.