Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Way to Be Good Again

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, Read by The Author, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2003

For reasons I won’t go into, I’ve always been a sucker for redemption stories. There’s something inherently dramatic and cathartic about stories involving protagonists who overcome their bad tendencies to become better people as a result of their experiences. While redemption is a factor in Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel The Kite Runner, the book is about much more.

Part introduction to the culture of the war-torn nation of Afghanistan (whose history has so terribly intersected America’s), The Kite Runner tells of fathers and sons, friends and brothers, and lifelong hatreds. While the central imagery of the book, kites, are most commonly associated with lightness and innocence, here there is more to the simple picture. A pastime of children (mostly), kite flying in Afghanistan is serious business, a cutthroat bout wherein competitors, using tiny shards of glass affixed to their strings, attempt to cut the bonds of other kite flyers. Thus comes in the title role, kite runners, who chase down the felled kites for the winners of these aerial battles.

All of this together underlines Hosseini’s premise, that underneath the innocence, childhood is fraught with danger and dread. More so in nations like Afghanistan, where war, poverty, strife, and a culture of violence permeate every aspect of life, but universal nonetheless.

We are introduced to the two children whose lives are the heart of the novel, Amir, our well-to-do narrator, and Hassan, a servant to Amir’s family and more than merely Amir’s friend. Both have lost their mothers, Amir’s mother dying in childbirth while Hassan’s mother reportedly ran off with singers and dancers. Motherless from their first days, they are bound not only by Amir’s father’s employment of Hassan’s father, but by sharing a nursemaid.

… there was a brotherhood between people who had fed from the same breasts, a kinship that not even time could break. Hassan and I had fed from the same breasts. We took our first steps on the same lawn in the same yard, and under the same roof we spoke our first words. Mine was ‘Baba,’ his was ‘Amir,’ my name. Looking back on it now, I think the foundation for what happened in the winter of 1975 and all that followed was already laid in those first words.

The childhood story of rich boy and poor boy chumming about is something we’ve seen before and The Kite Runner will follow some of this well-worn path while adding something especially its own to the telling. The specificity of culture is prominent in giving the tale its own flavor, but in Hosseini’s depiction of the self-sacrificing and deeply loving Hassan the novel grounds its heart and soul. Time and again, when Amir proves unworthy of the love of his friend, Hassan repays him with even greater demonstrations of it.

As for Amir, his own demons beset him throughout his life — as an unathletic, bookish child seeking his vigorous father’s love; as an adult, in misery for his failures as a friend when Hassan needed him most. Amir will grow to a quiet adulthood as a writer under these twin guilts.

There are books like this where you see the shape of tragedy, you know the calamity is coming before you even read the first page, and from there every scene is infused with dread. In The Kite Runner, this dread in the lives of the children most specifically takes the shape of Assef, a neighborhood bully of a savagery rarely seen even in fiction. He is the nightmare of the adult world made manifest in one sadistic, vicious package. Amir’s later flight from Afghanistan with his father when the Russians invade won’t prove to be the last time Assef takes malevolently to the stage, and his return later, while smacking a bit of narrative contrivance, makes good the promise of his evil.

What propels this violent later meeting is Amir’s return from America to Afghanistan during the Taliban years, searching for the son of Hassan. Promised by family friend Rahim Khan “a chance to be good again,” Amir will learn the secrets that his father took with him to the grave and will learn that he is a better man than he has believed all his life.

Hosseini’s picture of this Taliban period felt all too brief, the expatriate’s attempt to blot out just how bad things have become in his homeland, but also rushed along by the necessity of the plot. The glimpses that do pierce the surface, an Afghanistan where the director of an orphanage allows a Taliban official to buy children from him for sex, in order to keep feeding the children who remain his charges, an Afghanistan where there is a brisk trade in prosthetic limbs, crippled men selling their mobility in order to buy food for one more week for their family, is of a nation nearly destroyed by war, famine, and poverty. It is a place where ideology is used to pummel an already beaten populace, where might-makes-right is taken to its most pernicious extreme.

The Kite Runner is one staggering heartbreak after another, a constant series of “it can’t get any worse” moments that inevitably get worse, every ray of sunshine only a momentary burst through the heavy clouds over the book. It is a wonder that Hosseini’s novel ends with as much potential hope as it does. Haunting doesn’t begin to cover the novel’s effect, though when depicting a nation like Afghanistan, it might be the best that our simple, poor words can accomplish.

The author himself reads the novel, rarely a good idea, though the unfamiliarity of much of Afghan culture and language makes it a wise choice this time around. Hosseini, living in America since he was a teen, has a pleasantly accented English that grounds his reading in both foreignness and familiarity, his narration serving as an exemplary bridge between the two cultures.

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