Touted as the first Afghan novel written in English, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner makes up part of the growing branch of Muslim American immigrant literature (along with Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent and Laila Halaby’s West of the Jordan, both published in 2003). Loosely autobiographical, The Kite Runner begins in the same well-off Kabul neighborhood in which the author grew up with his diplomat father and schoolteacher mother. The action then shifts to California, where the family resettled in the early 1980’s after fleeing Afghanistan.
Hosseini, a practicing physician, began the novel (originally a short story) in March, 2001, and, working in the early morning hours, had it half-completed by September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks which occurred on that day left him and other Muslim Americans feeling anxious about their safety and also turned his unfinished novel into a hot property. After making a successful preemptive bid, Riverhead Books asked Hosseini to revise the manuscript (rather extensively, it turned out) in just four weeks in late 2002, in order to capitalize on interest in Afghanistan during the United States’ military action against the Taliban. The well-publicized novel appeared in the summer of 2003, just after American and world interest had shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq.
Employing a simple but effective three-part structure, framed by chapters set in December, 2001, The Kite Runner begins where Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things (1997) ends, with an act of betrayal. Part 1 focuses on the formative years of its narrator-protagonist, especially his relationship with Hassan, who is at once his servant and friend. The two boys are linked in several important ways: Born just a year apart, they live in the same household and have nursed at the same breast (following Amir’s mother’s death in childbirth and Hassan’s mother’s having run away).
The two are also divided—by physical ability, by temperament, by class, and most deeply by ethnicity, one a member of the majority Pashtuns, the other a despised Hazara. Hassan’s devotion to Amir is both a sign of his sweet disposition and, more troubling, the result of an ingrained servant-class mentality. Amir is, if not quite devoted to his playmate then certainly attached (including in a way that Amir could never have imagined, for Hassan turns out to be his half brother). Amir’s relatively privileged life, however, coupled with Hassan’s self-sacrificing devotion, makes Amir cruel, albeit in petty, even passive ways.
Amir’s cruelty and weakness of character are thrown into higher relief when a third boy, Assef, arrives on the scene. “On the surface, he was the embodiment of every parent’s dream. . . . but his eyes betrayed him. Beyond the façade, madness.” Beyond Amir’s facade there is neither madness nor maliciousness, only anxiety that derives, in large measure, from his not being manly enough to earn the love of his father, Baba, a successful, decidedly secular businessman highly respected for his business savvy, physical prowess, and charitable acts.
The crisis, and Amir’s downfall, comes at the moment of what should be his greatest triumph, at the annual winter kite-flying competition. Here the competitiveness of soccer, business, the Sharjangi (Battle of the Poems), Assef’s bullying, Pashtun oppression of Hazaras, and male oppression of women appears in relatively benign form. The aim of the kite flyers, who work in teams (one maneuvering the kite, the other playing out the line), is to use their strings, covered in tar and broken glass, to cut their opponents’ lines. To win Baba’s affection, Amir feels he must win the kite competition, but to do that he must rely on the very person he sees as a rival for that affection: Hassan. Amir must, in fact, rely on Hassan twice: as line feeder and as kite runner. The one who runs down the last opponent’s kite will receive a highly coveted trophy, which Hassan will give to Amir and Amir in turn will give to Baba.
Amir’s triumph goes horribly wrong. Hassan does find the kite, but he is then found by Assef and his gang. Assef, who neither forgets nor forgives any slight, such as Hassan’s rescuing Amir from Assef’s wrath two years earlier, takes his revenge by sodomizing Hassan. Amir secretly witnesses Hassan’s humiliation but does nothing to prevent it. Experiencing the shame of his own cowardice as well as of Hassan’s knowledge of it, and dismayed by Hassan’s having met his fate so resignedly, Amir returns home to the paternal love he had long craved but now cannot bear—just as he cannot bear the look of “guileless devotion” he sees in Hassan’s eyes in place of the blame and indignation Amir knows he deserves. The better to hide his own secret sin, Amir betrays Hassan a second time, resulting in Hassan leaving the relative paradise and safety of Baba’s home.
As Amir’s personal situation deteriorates, so does the political situation in Afghanistan. The overthrow of the monarchy in 1973 ushers in decades of instability. Baba and Amir flee in 1981 and eventually settle in California, where they suffer a complete reversal of fortune. Baba “loved the idea of America. It was living in America that gave him ulcers.” “For me,” Amir says, “America is a place to bury my memories. For Baba a place to mourn his.” By decade’s end, Amir has completed college (majoring in English), lost his father (to cancer), married Soraya, a (previously rebellious) member of the local Afghan community, and published his first novel. He knows that overall he is very fortunate, but he also believes that he does not deserve his good luck. His marriage to a woman “with a past” reminds him of his own secret sin, and the publication of his novel reminds him of long-suppressed memories of Hassan and of Rahim Khan, his father’s former business partner, both of whom had encouraged his writing many years before.
A phone call from a dying Rahim Khan in June, 2001, sets in motion the novel’s final movement. “Come, there is a way to be good again,” Rahim tells Amir, and Amir heeds the dying man’s cryptic summons. After arriving in Peshawar he learns, from Rahim and from Hassan’s letter, which Rahim delivers, all that has happened since 1983 to his home, his country, his surrogate father Rahim, and above all to the friend he only now learns (and Hassan never knew) was his half-brother. This is Baba’s guilty secret, born of his need—sexual or emotional—following the death of his wife in childbirth one year before: an act with many consequences for Hassan, for Hassan’s “father” Ali, and for Ali’s wife, who would flee the son she had borne.
Amir also learns that Hassan and his wife are dead, murdered by the Taliban, but that their son is alive. The way for Amir to be good again is to find the orphan and rescue him from the hell that Afghanistan has become under the Taliban. Offered this opportunity to atone for his and his father’s sins, Amir is at first reluctant, preferring to pay someone to rescue the boy, but Rahim is insistent, tricking Amir into thinking that once he finds the boy, Amir will have fulfilled his obligation.
Although he did not return to Kabul until March, 2003, months after completing the novel, Hosseini gives an account of Amir’s journey into the Taliban heart of darkness as vivid and harrowing as the journalist’s return in the film Kandahar (2001). Here is a country ravaged by decades of war, where everyone is suspect and executions are common. Amir learns that he has always been what he is now: a tourist in his own country, once protected by his father’s wealth and now by a loyal driver and a fake beard. He traces Hassan’s son, Sohrab, to an orphanage and from there to Assef, who has found in the Taliban a perfect outlet for his pathological bullying and in Sohrab a perfect outlet for his predatory sexual desires.
The showdown between Amir and Assef is melodramatic, and the scene in which Sohrab saves Amir is similarly unconvincing because it is so predetermined. Overall, though, this part of the novel succeeds on the strength of Hosseini’s depiction of Kabul, his handling of Sohrab’s powerful but undeserved feelings of guilt and shame, and his introducing a number of vividly drawn minor characters: the loyal driver Farid, the U.S. Embassy official Raymond Andrews, the immigration lawyer Omar Faisal, and especially the orphanage’s director, Zamra, a good man placed in a horrific situation and forced to make impossible choices that require sacrificing some children, including Sohrab, in order to save others, even if only for the moment. After several delays, much anguish, many legal hurdles, and one suicide attempt (the boy’s), Amir returns to California with Sohrab. While the novel ends happily, the happiness is qualified by the trauma Sohrab has suffered, by the lesson Amir has learned about making promises he may not be able to keep, and by the deep sense of loss which atoning for past wrongs cannot quite assuage.
The Kite Runner is a novel of conflict, and the conflicts range from warring armies, factions, worldviews, and ethnic groups to the conflicts between individuals, fathers and sons and Amir and Baba in particular. Underlying many of these conflicts, perhaps all, is the conflict between the masculine and the feminine. The absence of mothers from the lives of Amir and Hassan, like the subordination of women in patriarchal Afghan society, suggests as much. Hosseini’s critique of patriarchy and its personal and social consequences is welcome, even though it, at times, results in the writing becoming sentimental, even trite. Some of these slips are intentional, deliberate but risky attempts on Hosseini’s part to get at a layer of truth that irony cannot quite reach. As Amir explains, “A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: ‘Avoid them like the plague.’ Then he’d laugh at his own joke. The class laughed with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead on.” Just as often, they seem of a piece with the symmetry that makes a novel in which no one and nothing is without its counterpart seem a little too pat.
To call The Kite Runner a morality tale, or a tale of loyalty and betrayal, is not only to succumb to the power of its melodrama but also to miss the novel’s greater significance and achievement. This is Hosseini using fiction to make real a nation and a people not so much epitomized in as reduced to the picture of a young Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic magazine, a people vying for the short attention span of an American public.
Deftly positioning Amir’s story against the backdrop of recent Afghan history, making each an allegory of the other, Hosseini finds his novel arriving at a particular moment in that history: September 11 and the “war on terrorism” gave Afghanistan its fifteen minutes of fame—just before attention shifted to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, leaving Afghans once again in the lurch and a cause in which the United States was no longer much interested. In this context, The Kite Runner is like the mother Amir mentions, wailing for her dead child. It raises the same question Amir does in recalling his and Hassan’s first confrontation with Assef: “I wondered if anyone would hear us scream in this remote patch of land.” If the muted optimism of its final scene derives from the writer’s desire to use fiction as a healing force, the novel strikes a mournful note, no less reproachful than redemptive, and one that could make many American readers feel ashamed of their own betrayals as well as uplifted by Amir’s hard-won affirmation.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 9 (May 1, 2003): 630.
Library Journal 128, no. 19 (November 15, 2003): 114.
Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2003, p. E6.
The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 2003, p. 4.
People 60, no. 2 (July 14, 2003): 47.
Publishers Weekly 250, no.19 (May 12, 2003): 43.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 2003, p. M1.
The Times Literary Supplement, October 10, 2003, p. 25.
USA Today, May 22, 2003, p. D6.
The Washington Post Book World, July 6, 2003, p. 3.