The Kite Runner is Khaled Hosseini’s first novel. Born in Kabul, Hosseini draws heavily on his own experiences to create the setting for the novel; the characters, however, are fictional. Hosseini’s plot shows historical realism, as the novel includes dates—for chronological accuracy, including the time of the changing regimes of Afghanistan. Amir’s happy childhood days fall under the peaceful and affluent era of King Zahir Shah’s reign, a time when Amir and his friend, Hassan, could themselves feel like kings of Kabul, carving their names into a tree. In 1973, Dawood Khan becomes the president of Afghanistan. This era is reflected in the novel when the local bully, Assef, harasses Amir with his brass knuckles and hopes that Hazaras will be eliminated.
The Russian invasion in 1981 turns Kabul into a war zone, forcing many residents, including Baba and Amir, to escape to Pakistan. Even after the Russians had left the country, the unrest had continued. In 1996, the Talibs had come to power. In the novel, Rahim Khan tells Amir that Talibs had banned kite fighting in 1996 and that in 1998, Hazaras had been massacred.
The novel’s complex plot consists of several conflicts that evoke sympathy for characters who are unjustly victimized. The story begins with the internal conflicts of Amir—a wealthy child—who enjoys Hassan’s friendship but is also jealous of him and ends up cheating him. An external conflict occurs between the protagonist, Amir, and the antagonist, Assef. Amir goes to Afghanistan to rescue his nephew Sohrab, as “a way to be good again,” but encounters Assef, a vindictive and cruel enemy from the past, and now a ruling Talib.
A final conflict shows the gap between the legal system and the human rights of orphans as victims of war, a gap that leads to Sohrab’s attempted suicide. Intrinsic to the conflicts in the novel is the unjust victimization of the innocent—a theme evoking the import of human rights across international boundaries.
Hosseini succeeds in striking the right balance between tragic emotion and optimism. For example, the narrator drops clues that Sohrab will talk again “almost a year” after his suicide attempt. Similarly, Sohrab’s faint smile in the novel’s last scene is a clue that he will be happy with his new guardians. Hosseini’s imagery also is powerful and layered with meaning. For example, Sohrab hitting Assef with slingshot fire is a befitting image that shows the triumph of the weak and lowly over the high and mighty—a modern David and Goliath tale.
Another successful aspect of the novel is characterization. When Amir’s character transforms, he is willing to risk his life for Sohrab. In contrast, Assef claims a religious conversion but shows no change of character. Some critics find fault with Hosseini’s one-dimensional characterization of Assef as a stereotyped Talib who is inhumane and tyrannical. However, the novel is written from a first-person narrator’s viewpoint. Amir is the narrator for twenty-four chapters, and Rahim Khan narrates the events of the past in chapter 16. Both narrators can report only their respective experiences, and both paint a tragic picture of Taliban atrocities.
Unique to Hosseini is his artistic ability to blend the literary tradition of the Western novel with the Persian literature of the Sufis. The novel includes consistent references to the Persian legend of Rostam and Sohrab, which comes from Persian poet Firdusi’s Shahnamah (c. 1010), the poetic epic of Afghanistan, Iran, and other Persian-speaking countries. These references serve to exemplify the novel’s theme, a classic one, of the quest for the father. Other parallels with the Persian epic are The Kite Runner’s ironic revelations about the past, the novel’s war-zone setting, and the novel’s tragic irony associated with the ignorance of many of its characters. Tragic irony is a vehicle for revelation, and it also serves as a rhetorical strategy to validate the narrator’s claim: “I’ve learned . . . [how] the past claws its way out.” Likewise, tragic irony becomes a rhetorical strategy for comparing and contrasting characters’ behaviors as they manipulate knowledge and claim ignorance in their relationships. For example, Amir’s childish ploys to get rid of Hassan and his father, Ali, culminate in a tragic scene, in which “Hassan knew . . . everything. . . . He knew I had betrayed him and yet he was rescuing me once again.” Hassan would not expose to Baba that Amir was actually a liar and a cheater. This marks a critical moment in Amir’s life because he realizes that he loves Hassan, “more than he had loved anyone else”; still, Amir cannot confess the truth and will never again see Hassan.
The Kite Runner is a powerful story about two boys whose friendship is threatened by deception and betrayal yet withstands the pressures of cultural barriers and legal boundaries. Their childhood memories of happy days outlast their tragic separation, and the steadfast loyalty of Hassan defines the theme of this novel as one of true friendship.