Friday, March 27, 2020

"The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini--Fiction Review

We’re coming to the close of March this Friday, and today’s fiction review is “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini.

“The Kite Runner” is a literary, recent historical novel and is about the feel-good story of Afghanistan, assuming you’re a sociopath. Seriously, it’s an intimate novel about the lives of characters that lived in the city of Kabul. Taking place before and during the wars starting in the late seventies, which continued in one form or another until—well today. The subject matter covered in this novel gets dark, including war, murder, suicide, death in general, and even rape—so if any of that is going to be a problem for you, best skip this novel, and here’s your ripcord out of this review, here.  

Khaled Hosseini

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

When most westerners, especially those of us outside of the armed forces, think of Afghanistan, we’re usually thinking of Iraq. I’m guilty of this too—Iraq is just the more prominently focused on conflict in our media. So when we imagine Afghanistan, there is a tendency to think of it as desert hellscape, and when we think of a city in Afghanistan, we think—ruins in a desert hellscape.

But here is Kabul in winter:

You’ll notice first off it’s in the mountains—and it’s not a desert. It turns out the desert hellscape mental picture isn’t accurate—also to ruin it for nearly every war movie/tv show it isn’t all that accurate for Iraq either, but that’s a different topic. I’m going on about this is because I loved how Hosseini corrected my mental picture of Afghanistan, especially with his descriptions of winter in Kabul.

The author also does a great job of illuminating the fact that Kabul wasn’t always a terrifying place. In the early seventies, it even seemed like a reasonably pleasant place. He even describes that there were once regular American tourists who visited during the summers. I love all these details because it drives home the horror of what happens to a place after decades of war and enduring an extreme power vacuum where there is no legitimate government present. 

What I don’t love about this book:

I never grow to love Amir—respect sure—but even though this is an intimate story about his life, I never move past merely liking him, some of the time. He was a spoiled boy, who took for granted his best friend—though as a child never admitted that Hassan was his best friend—and grew into a man capable of doing the right thing, but only begrudgingly. 

The pacing of the novel is slow, which is more just a hallmark of novels that come down more on the literary side than the genre side of the fiction divide. So this is more of an argument that I prefer genre fiction over literary—and is less a comment on this particular story.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The novel opens with Amir the man—not Amir the boy—and he teases the story of his childhood. A tale of his perceived sins and regrets—the story of how he became what he is today.

Then we are transported back to nineteen seventy-five, and Amir is a boy hanging out with his inseparable companion, Hassan. The two of them are mischief-makers, but Amir points out that the mischief was always his idea, never Hassan’s. This is the dynamic between the two boys, Amir is the rich Pashtun boy, and Hassan is the poor Hazara boy—and Amir’s servant. Not Amir’s friend, Amir is always quick to point out. 

Of the two boys, Amir is the more bookish, but only because he’s literate and Hassan is illiterate. Much to Amir’s chagrin, Hassan is naturally a kinder, wiser soul, and is even loved by Amir’s father, which only stokes Amir’s jealousy. The two boys share a passion for kite fighting, a sport that involves flying kites and using the kite to cut the strings of other people’s kites and is even more brutal than it sounds because the lines of these kites are coated in tar and crushed glass. Then when a kite gets cut down, a mop of people race to claim the downed kite. Amir flies the kites, and Hassan, who has a preternatural talent for it, runs down the kites—hence the title of the novel.

Amir feels he needs to win the big kiting competition to earn his father’s love, because his father, a robust man, is often disappointed in his bookish son, and wishes he were more like the athletic Hassan. During the competition, Hassan, as always, is by Amir’s side and is just as thrilled when Amir wins the competition and has the last kite flying in the sky. Hassan then runs off to claim the last kite Amir cut down, for Amir, after saying “for you, a thousand times over.”

Hassan manages to find the kite, per usual but is waylaid before being able to return home. Amir goes out to find Hassan, worried that he was taking so long. Soon Amir discovers that the local bullies, led by one particularly sociopathic boy, have cornered Hassan in an alley—and are demanding the kite. Hassan, loyal to a fault, won’t give it up because he caught it for Amir, who was cowardly watching all of this from the mouth of the alley. The bullies then hold Hassan down, and the sociopath rapes him.

After that, when Hassan finally makes it home with the kite and gives it to Amir, their relationship dissolves, primarily because of Amir’s guilt. Eventually, Hassan’s father takes the boy away, and they move out of Amir’s father’s house.

Years later, after the Russians have invaded Afghanistan, Amir and his father have to flee the country and eventually end up in California. They go from being wealthy citizens of Kabul to scraping by in the United States. Eventually, Amir marries an Afghani woman whose family had also fled the wars in Afghanistan. Amir and his father finally reconcile before his father’s death, and Amir becomes a writer like he always wanted.

Now, living a good life, Amir gets a phone call from Pakistan, and it’s one of his father’s friends, who was like an uncle to Amir. He tells Amir, “there is a way to be good again,” to entice him to come to Pakistan because he’s aware of what happened between Hassan and Amir.

In Pakistan, Amir hears the story of Hassan’s life and even gets a letter from him. Hassan grew up strong, learned to read and write, found a wife, and had a son and were taking care of Amir’s father’s old house. Then Amir is rocked by several revelations from his father’s friend. Hassan wasn’t just Amir’s loyal friend and servant, but also his illegitimate half brother. He and his wife were also recently murdered by the Taliban, and Amir’s nephew was taken to an orphanage in Kabul. Amir then still had to be convinced, but ultimately, he does decide to brave the road back to Kabul to search for his nephew, where he ends up facing the Taliban. He barely escapes with his and his nephew’s lives.

Still, Amir intended to give his nephew to another orphanage all along, run by an American couple, until he finds out his father’s friend made them up to get Amir to go to Kabul. Again, ultimately, Amir does do the right thing and decides to adopt his nephew but has to find a way to get the psychologically traumatized boy who attempts to commit suicide, out of Pakistan, and to the United States.

When Amir gets his nephew back to California, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, all of the psychological trauma is still there, and it colors everything in the boy’s life. The novel does end on a positive note, though, when Amir, his wife, and his nephew are at a gathering of Afghanis living in San Francisco.  At the party, some people are kite fighting, and Amir manages to have a breakthrough with his nephew, and they compete. Then when they cut down their opponent’s kite, before Amir runs off to claim the downed kite, Amir says to his nephew, “for you, a thousand times over.”         


This novel is all about its characters’ relationships during a pivotal period in recent Afghanistan history. In addition to being historical fiction, there is a decent argument to be made that it’s also a family drama—even though neither Amir or Hassan have mother figures. They share a father, unknown to them for all of Hassan’s life, but both lost their mothers in different ways. Amir’s mother died during childbirth, and Hassan’s just left his adoptive father, whom he thought was his birth father. Though, it is nice that she does return into his life for a little while when he was an adult, and she has an adorable relationship with her grandson.

This character work is vital, staging the true horror of this novel, which is what society lost looks like and the depth of despair brought by that loss. It is tough to process the idea of the destruction of a civilization. It’s akin to visualizing a billion of any object. The human mind can’t really do it—so we don’t do it at all, sadly it’s a hole in our experience. Intellectually—unless you’re an asshole—we can reason a billion dead people is a bad thing and should be a sad thing, but the words are sterile, and the emotion doesn’t come. However, when we put a face to it—like when Hassan is dragged into the street by the Taliban. Loyal, Hassan, whose only dreams as an adult were to protect his family and see his brother again, is then shot in the head by some murderous bastard. That evokes an emotion. Especially when they then shoot Hassan’s wife, and get away with it all because there is no law, no justice, because they themselves made sure that there wouldn’t be anymore.

Make no mistake, when someone makes the pseudo-intellectual claim that the world would be a better place if we were just to kill off twenty percent, thirty percent, or whatever number they’d like of the world’s population—they are exactly like the Taliban.     

Parting thoughts:

I am suspicious of my dislike for Amir. It isn’t just that he’s a coward and ostensibly nobody likes a coward. Him being too cowardly to help Hassan in the alley reminds me of an incident in my past. Nobody was raped or even hurt. But there was a time when I stood by as a drunk stranger bullied a friend of mine. I told myself at the time that I was always there, and everyone knew I was present—I was waiting to intervene if anything turned violent. But the thing is—I don’t hate that drunk asshole, I hate my inaction, and who I was at that moment. That is why I suspect I never came around fully with Amir. He reminds me too much of myself during a moment in time I would rather forget.

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