Maria Elena Caballero-Robb

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2096

Maria Elena Caballero-Robb earned her Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She works in publishing and teaches courses in U.S. literature and culture and composition. In this essay, Caballero-Robb interprets Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner as a work that intertwines the private and public realms of experience.

Perhaps what garnered Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, so much early praise, aside from the political relevance of its subject matter when the book was published in 2003, is its successful intertwining of the personal and the political. The novel has an ambitious agenda: to sketch the maturation of its protagonist from a callow boy beguiled by mythical stories of heroes and to portray the political situation of contemporary Afghanistan. The novel begins to show how the personal and the political affect one another through the peculiar relationship between Amir and Hassan. Indeed, James O'Brien, in his review in the Times Literary Supplement, argues, "this muddled, unbalanced and ultimately tragic relationship" between the privileged Amir and the servant Hassan "lies at the heart of The Kite Runner and echoes the betrayals and power shifts that begin to shape the country shortly after the story begins." Through the course of the novel, Amir's personal quest takes him on a decades-long journey from his birth country to the United States and finally back to his country of origin. In passing through this transforming crucible, Amir not only atones for past personal failings but also embraces a hopeful ideal of citizenship capable of upholding principles of liberty and human rights even in the face of repressive, fascist systems.

In the first several chapters, the novel's action revolves around the relationship between Amir and his friend and servant Hassan, and Amir's constant attempts to earn the respect and love of his father, Baba. Amir describes Hassan as a wise innocent, incapable of deceit, yet uncannily perceptive. Hassan's character and unschooled intelligence are apparent in his complete loyalty to Amir and his ability to perceive things about Amir that not even Amir is aware of: "Hassan couldn't read a first-grade textbook, but he could read me plenty." Indeed, critic Melissa Katsoulis points out in her review in the Times (London), "Though Hassan cannot read or write, he loves to hear Amir read aloud and is perfectly capable of pointing out the gaping hole in Amir's first attempt at plotting a story." Hassan is also admired for his physical talents—a faultless aim with a slingshot and the ability to predict where a loose kite will drift "as if he had some sort of inner compass." Baba's unusually high regard for his son's servant makes Amir, who cannot seem to please his father, jealous. When Baba pays for an operation to correct Hassan's harelip and dotes on the boy during his recovery, Amir thinks, "I wished I too had some kind of scar that would beget Baba's sympathy. It wasn't fair. Hassan hadn't done anything to earn Baba's affections; he'd just been born with that stupid harelip." Meanwhile, Amir is acutely aware that there is little understanding between himself and his father: "The least I could have done was to have had the decency to have turned out a little more like him." He senses that his father blames him for his mother's death in childbirth; and to compound matters, he overhears his father remark to Rahim Khan, "If I hadn't seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own eyes, I'd never believe he's my son."

While the dynamics of these relationships remain central to the story,...

(This entire section contains 2096 words.)

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in later chapters, the political events outside the limits of the family circle propel the story's action. The first hint of this transition occurs when Amir and Hassan have an encounter with a violent older boy named Assef, who wants to persecute Hassan for being a Hazara. Assef, who believes Hitler was an ideal leader, tells Amir that he is betraying his Pashtun heritage by treating a Hazara boy as his close friend. While Assef's bigotry outrages Amir, Amir is unable to think of a response. Ultimately, Hassan stands up to Assef and his lackeys; when Assef and his lackeys threaten to hurt the two younger boys, it is Hassan, not Amir, who saves them both by using his slingshot to drive the bullies away.

The boys'second encounter with Assef is much less victorious. Ironically, the encounter occurs immediately after Amir wins the kite-running tournament, which Amir believes is his chance finally to live up to his father's expectations:

There was no other viable option. I was going to win, and I was going to run that last kite. Then I'd bring it home and show it to Baba. Show him once and for all that his son was worthy. Then maybe my life as a ghost in this house would finally be over. I let myself dream: I imagined conversation and laughter over dinner instead of silence broken only by the clinking of the silverware and the occasional grunt.

The novel's frequent reference to the Afghan heroic tale, the Shahnammah, implicitly creates a comparison between Amir's relationship with his father and the larger-than-life interactions between the father-and-son warriors Rostam and Sohrab in the myth. When Amir wins the kite tournament, he begins to think of his anticipated reunion with his father in mythical terms:

In my head, I had it all planned: I'd make a grand entrance, a hero, prized trophy in my bloodied hands. Heads would turn and eyes would lock. Rostam and Sohrab sizing each other up. A dramatic moment of silence. Then the old warrior would walk to the young one, embrace him, acknowledge his worthiness.

The additional stakes of the kite tournament—the need not just to obtain the last fallen kite, but to win his father's love—compound the dilemma Amir faces when he finds Hassan being threatened by Assef and the other bullies in an alley. While Amir chooses to run, out of fear rather than to help his friend, he wonders whether he has actually sacrificed his friend for his own ends. Even as Amir sees that Hassan is in danger, he is also focused on the coveted blue kite: "Hassan was standing at the blind end of the alley in defiant stance…. Behind him, sitting on piles of scrap and rubble, was the blue kite. My key to Baba's heart." Although he is horrified at what happens to Hassan, he allows his friend to become a casualty of his quest to improve his relationship with his father. Amir's actions mirror the ethnic inequalities between Pashtuns and Hazara that are reflected in a dozen daily occurrences in the first several chapters. He uses Hassan as an instrument to achieve a desired end. Amir's failure to treat his playmate as a person marks the fatal character flaw that the adult Amir will seek to remedy.

The adult Amir moves to remedy this failure by accepting the mission to rescue Hassan's son, Sohrab, from an uncertain end. Amir redeems himself by confronting Assef and assuming responsibility for Hassan's child. The climax of the novel parallels the earlier violent crisis in which Assef rapes Hassan, but offers a victorious outcome. The battle between Amir and Assef presents Amir with the belated opportunity to fight as he believes he should have fought to save Hassan when they were children. By risking his life to save Hassan's child from a sadistic pedophile, Amir begins to atone for his earlier inhumanities.

Throughout the novel, the author uses corresponding symbols and images to emphasize the way that Amir's adult choices are belated remedies of past failures. After the climactic fight with Assef during his rescue of Sohrab, Amir is taken to a hospital in Pakistan with serious injuries. While he recovers, he discovers that his upper lip has been split clear up to the gum line, forming a harelip similar to the one Hassan was born with. Echoing an earlier scene in a hospital, in which the twelve-year-old Hassan recovers from an operation to mend his harelip, the adult Amir must wait for his own split lip to mend and quickly learns that it hurts to smile. This simultaneously reminds the reader of the moment when Amir sees Hassan smile for the last time. The reader may view Amir's injury as a moment of belated sympathy between two brothers now separated not only by geographic distance and differing fortunes, but also by death.

The novel's use of literary techniques contributes to a political statement about the relationship between individuals and systems—or the capacities of individuals to combat broad injustice in political systems. The Kite Runner turns on more than one astounding coincidence: when Amir returns to Kabul, he meets a beggar who turns out to have known Amir's mother; and, most startling, Assef, the childhood bully, turns out to be the prominent Taliban official who has kidnapped and brutalized Hassan's son Sohrab. While Rebecca Stuhr of the Library Journal finds fault with the novel's "over-reliance on coincidence," Hosseini's use of the device shows how even personal conflicts like Amir's lifelong struggle with his own guilt are intertwined with world events. This narrative twist also emphasizes the interplay between the present and the past—"the past claws its way out"—by showcasing the way that the deeds of childhood cast their shadows into adulthood. (In a similar vein, the author's use of foreshadowing sometimes signals to the reader that an imminent event will have lasting consequences, as when Amir plants money in Hassan's room in order to implicate him in a theft.)

That Amir's former nemesis turns out to be the Taliban official from whom he must rescue Sohrab lends an allegorical and mythical dimension to the battle between the two men. As a young boy, Assef is already described as "a sociopath;" an admirer of Hitler, Assef displays fascist tendencies and openly advocates removing the Hazara population from Afghanistan. Amir, on the other hand, who is by and large a good boy, is self-interested and lacks conviction. If the grown Assef appears to be a nearly cartoonish embodiment of sadism and the desire for absolute power, Amir's struggle to defeat him and save the young Sohrab appears to be an allegory for a broader struggle for Afghanistan. Whereas Amir had been able to escape the daily violence of contemporary Afghanistan as a result of his relative privilege, his Hazara friend Hassan had no choice but to raise his son among a generation of Afghan children, born into a turbulent society, who "know nothing but the sound of bombs and gunfire."

Interestingly, when Amir, a successful writer, tries to use his privilege to rescue Sohrab by offering Assef money, he is rebuffed; instead he must put his life at risk in order to complete his mission. Amir's decision to return to Afghanistan to save the son of his forsaken friend represents a choice for the exiled to return to his birth country to confront the problems that drove him away. The Kite Runner focuses more on interpersonal dramas than on political ones; it is a matter of interpretation whether Amir feels responsible for the future of his birth country in the same way that he feels accountable for his nephew's fate. Still, through Assef's embodiment of the evil of fascism and Amir's willingness to fight him for a good cause the reader is presented with a stark contrast between a theocratic regime that starves and crushes the freedoms of its people, and a reluctant but ultimately courageous citizen willing to risk his life for what he believes in.

Remarkably, the novel does not allude to the enormous controversy that accompanied the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, including the bombing of Afghanistan in retaliation for the Taliban's harboring of terrorist camps. If one can discern an author's view of politics from his fiction, Hosseini views developments in Afghan national politics of 2001 and 2002 with some optimism. In the last two chapters, the narrator speaks warmly of the ousting of the Taliban and the emergence of Hamid Karzai as the new leader of Afghanistan, and describes the hope with which the imminent Loya jirga, the exiled king's return to Afghanistan, is anticipated by Afghans and Afghan Americans alike. This optimistic attitude toward contemporaneous developments in Amir's home country parallels the novel's final flicker of hope regarding Sohrab. Afghanistan, the novel seems to argue, so recently brutalized and repressed, may yet survive.

Source: Maria Elena Caballero-Robb, Critical Essay on The Kite Runner, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

James O'Brien

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

In the following review, O'Brien discusses the author's use of voice, and how the two main characters reflect the character of Afghanistan itself.

Rare is the exiled author whose remembrances of home resist becoming rose-tinted as the years pass. Given the ravages visited on Afghanistan since the young Khaled Hosseini and his family sought political asylum in the United States in 1980, the foremost of many triumphs in this startling first novel must be that its consideration of cultural, religious and deeply personal upheavals remains cool and considered throughout. Hosseini's own profession—he is a doctor—perhaps provides a more convincing explanation of his narrator's unemotional tone than the fictional claim that he has become an English-language author of some repute.

Amir is twelve when the novel begins in 1975, but the seeds of his story were sown much earlier. He "killed" his mother in childbirth and, a bookish, somewhat sickly child, has done little since to earn either affection or respect from his father. Amir's only solace is Hassan, his hare-lipped servant and best friend. It is this muddled, unbalanced and ultimately tragic relationship that lies at the heart of The Kite Runner and echoes the betrayals and power shifts which begins to shape the country shortly after the story begins.

The two boys suckled at the same breast—it belonged to a wet nurse; Hassan's mother quit her humdrum existence in search of glamour shortly after Amir's quit this life altogether—and so forged a bond which Afghans believe to be unbreakable. Their early life was idyllic, with only the uncaring shadow of Amir's Baba blighting their days of storytelling, fruit-gathering and kite-running. In Kabul, the kite strings are laced with glass to slice all-comers from the skies until just one remains aloft. Hassan is the finest kite-runner in Kabul, with an unerring ability to predict the progress of these wind-borne tissue creations. It is a gift which proves of little use when Amir, confused, embittered and convinced of his servant's elevated status in Baba's affections, sets about severing ties of a different kind.

The exposure of Amir's myriad failings is brought starkly home in a scene of breathtaking brutality when he is too cowardly to stop the punishment inflicted on Hassan. This constitutes one of the book's few flaws. When Hosseini strays from the simple narrative style he prefers, he struggles to retain credibility and, on occasion, leaves Amir sounding like Kabul's half-baked answer to Holden Caulfield: "That was the thing with Hassan. He was so goddamn pure, you always felt like a phony around him". These lapses are rare, and for the most part the story of Amir's grand betrayal of Hassan and his painful search for redemption across generations is told in a cool, detached voice that provides a counterpoint to the growing sense of tension which is frequently stretched to breaking point as the story unfolds.

From exile in America to a clandestine return to Kabul in the grip of the Taleban, the narrative ranges freely across the globe engaging the reader's emotions. Amir is a difficult hero, largely unlovable but utterly sympathetic, while the plight of blameless Hassan reflects the fate of his country. There are history lessons here; among the deepest of Afghanistan's wounds is the fact that its past has been largely obscured by its bloody present. There are also questions. Is any bond truly unbreakable? Can sons atone for the sins of fathers?

Source: James O'Brien, "The Sins of the Father," in Times Literary Supplement, October 10, 2003, p. 25.

Ronny Noor

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

In the following essay, Noor reviews The Kite Runner as a novel about sin and redemption, but contends that it fails to give a complete picture of the Afghan conflict.

The Kite Runner is Khaled Hosseini's best-selling first novel. It is the very first novel in English by an Afghan, in which a thirty-eight-year-old writer named Amir recounts the odyssey of his life from Kabul to San Francisco via Peshwar, Pakistan. The protagonist was born into a wealthy family in Kabul. Raised by his father, his mother having passed away during his birth, Amir lives a relatively happy life until the Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan. Then he and his family flee to Pakistan and end up in America. In the United States, his father becomes a gas-station manager, selling junk on weekends with his son at the San Jose flea market. Amir meets Soraya, the daughter of a former Afghan general, and soon ties the knot with her.

For fifteen years the young couple tries in vain to have children. Then Amir receives a call from Rahim Khan, a friend and former business partner of his now-deceased father. Amir flies to Peshwar to meet with him. Rahim Khan reveals that Hassan, Amir's childhood friend, the presumed son of the family servant Ali, was in reality Amir's half-brother, his father's illegitimate son with Ali's wife. Hassan and his wife were killed by the Taliban. Rahim Khan wants Amir to go to Kabul and bring Hassan's son to Peshwar. After much hesitation, Amir goes to Kabul and frees his nephew from the clutches of an unscrupulous child molester. Later he brings the child to America for adoption.

This lucidly written and often touching novel gives a vivid picture of not only the Russian atrocities but also those of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. It is rightly a "soaring debut," as the Boston Globe claims, but only if we consider it a novel of sin and redemption, a son trying to redeem his father's sin. As far as the Afghan conflict is concerned, we get a selective, simplistic, even simple-minded picture. Hosseini tells us, for example, that "Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis" were behind the Taliban. He does not mention the CIA or Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Carter, "whose stated aim," according to Pankaj Mishra in the spring 2002 issue of Granta, "was to'sow [s—t] in the Soviet backyard.'"

Hosseini also intimates that the current leader handpicked by foreign powers, Hamid Karzai—whose "caracul hat and green chapan became famous"—will put Afghanistan back in order. Unfortunately, that is all Karzai is famous for—his fashion, Hollywood style. His government does not control all of Afghanistan, which is torn between warlords as in the feudal days. Farmers are producing more opium than ever before for survival. And the occupying forces, according to human-rights groups, are routinely trampling on innocent Afghans. There is no Hollywood-style solution to such grave problems of a nation steeped in the Middle Ages, is there?

Source: Ronny Noor, "Afghanistan: The Kite Runner," in World Literature Today, Vol. 78, No. 3-4, September-December 2004, p. 148.

Khaled Hosseini

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In the following excerpt, Hosseini discusses how being a physician gives him a compassionate insight to humanity and makes him a better writer.

Khaled Hosseini. (Physician writers)

A blinking little red light. Another voice mail. Didn't I just go through them? I sat down. I never delay listening to voice mails; call it a compulsion, a personal quirk.

I put down Mrs CR's chart and dialed my answering machine. It was my father-in-law, telling me he had loved my short story, The Kite Runner, but wished it had been longer. At some point between the instant I put down the receiver and the moment I knocked on the door to tell Mrs CR about her diabetic nephropathy, a seed planted itself in my mind: I was going to turn The Kite Runner into a novel.

And so it began. For the next 15 months, I tapped away at the keyboard. I created a troubled, 12-year-old boy named Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant living in Kabul, Afghanistan, circa 1975, and his angelic friend Hassan, a minority Hazara and the son of Amir's crippled servant. I developed a deep and unusual friendship between the boys, only to make Amir betray Hassan in an unspeakable way. I shattered the boy's lives. I watched the brutalised Hassan pay the price for his guileless devotion to Amir, and watched Amir grow into a brooding, haunted, guilt-ridden man in the USA. Then I sent Amir back to Kabul, now ruled by the Taliban, on one last desperate quest for redemption. In June, 2002, The Kite Runner was completed. A year later, while on a US book tour to promote the novel, two of the most common questions people asked me were: how do you find time to write as a doctor; and did being a doctor help you writing?

My day at work ranges from busy to frantic. Between prescription refills, referrals, meetings, laboratory reviews, voice mails, and seeing patients, I have developed an appreciation for the concept of free time. And when I go home, I have my wife and two children, not to mention an extended Afghan family life. That leaves the early morning. My free time. And if there is one thing we doctors have been trained for, it's getting by with less than ideal hours of sleep. So for 15 months, I woke up at 0500 h, drank cupfuls of black coffee, and created the world of Amir and Hassan. Luckily for me, the soulful early morning hours coincided with my creative time.

As for the second question, the answer, surprisingly, is yes. A writer, like a doctor, has to be a good listener and observer. Whereas a doctor listens to learn about his or her patient, a writer listens and observes to learn about nuances of dialogue, body language, and the peculiar verbal and non-verbal ways in which people express themselves. My medical practice provides me with ample opportunity for this sort of observation, since in a typical working day, I sit and listen to some 20 stories, all told in unique voices. I listen to them as a doctor and observe them as a writer. Furthermore, it's essential in both crafts to develop some insight into human nature. Writers and physicians need to understand to some extent the motivations behind behaviour and appreciate how such things as a person's upbringing, their culture, their biases, shape that person, whether it be a patient or a character in a story. Writers say the more you understand your characters, the better you can write them. Similarly, the more doctors understand their patients, the better they can help them.

While on tour, one person raised what seemed a far more important question: did writing help you become a better doctor? It did. I firmly believe that. The medical profession offers satisfying rewards, but for some the challenges of today's medicine can prove exhausting, or worse—we have all crossed paths with jaded colleagues who have long lost sight of the rewards of healing in the rigorous frenzy of daily practice. Writing, by contrast, is creative. For me, starting the day with an act of creation is therapeutic. It brings me closer to my emotional state and, as a result, I go to see my patients with a positive frame of mind. To be sure, that's good for me, but far more importantly, it's good for my patients.

Source: Khaled Hosseini, "Khaled Hosseini: Physician writers," in Lancet, Vol. 362, No. 9388, September 20, 2003, p. 1003.


Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview