Khaled Hosseini is not an Indian writer, but an Afghan-American writer. But having read The kite runner (2003), I wanted to include my review of it here, because it’s a book about the region, and I know that a lot of people have read it in and around India. The literary phenomenon which the book represents, along with Hosseini’s second opus, A thousand splendid suns, also explains my breach of practice.
The kite runner has the charm, the naturalness and the emotionality of great works of world fiction, but its first quality is its obviousness: you start reading it, and you’re immediately at home. There’s no artistic pretexts, no frills, no style, almost. Hosseini, unlike so many writers, has a story to tell; it’s a great story, and he’s a great story-teller. Without realizing it, you’re there, in the Kabul of the 1970s, and the story has started. It revolves around the two boys, Hassan and Amir, and you’re witnessing their childhood games, and you’re drawn by the vision of that faraway time and place. In the streets of the city, on the hills not far out, Amir flies his kites with Hassan, who lives with him among other servants and friends, and the pair enjoy their boyish pursuits together. Then you’re pulled into the murkier waters of the relationships between Amir and his father, a widower (but great socialite) called Baba – who seems to have something to hide from a past which social prejudices prevent him from acknowledging. And then, all around, Kabul, Afghanistan, its culture, its customs, its hardships and its spirit.
But soon, somewhere, an uneasiness, a guilt perhaps, is lurking: Amir can’t help disliking something in that father of his, and it makes the story less transparent. His friend Hassan, the son of his father’s servant Ali, belongs to an ethnic tribe, the Hazara, which is seen as inferior to Amir’s. This unbalance, blended with Amir’s discontent, makes him play sadistic games with Hassan, who, almost unawares, still admires him and forgives him with a wonderful (and half-disturbing) generosity. From that early relationship, with its potential violence, a strain of events is going to flow, fuelled by a history of war and exile, darkened by jealousy and disrespect, torn by the craziness of ethnic rivalry.
“When Hassan and I came home after watching a Hindi film at cinema Zainab, what Ali, Rahim Khan, Baba or the myriad of Baba’s friends – second and third cousins milling in and out of the house – wanted to know was this: did the girl in the film find happiness? Did the bacheh film, the Guy in the film, become kamyah and fulfil his dreams, or was he nah-kam, doomed to wallow in failure?
Was there happiness in the end, they wanted to know.
If someone were to ask me today whether the story of Hassan, Sohrab and me ends with happiness, I wouldn’t know what to say.
After all, life is not a Hindi movie.” (p.327)
Happiness: that’s the key to the book. In spite of its bleak outlook on human nature and human history, Hosseini is telling us we are created for happiness and freedom. Men are boys who find their joy in flying coloured kites high up in the blue sky of friendship and honesty, even if some of them have forgotten it, and play “other” games. The book voices the interrogation about religious terrorism, and denounces any violence in the name of Islam: but it also describes how deep hatred and intolerance are rooted in the heart of men. Generations will continue to suffer before generations can apply balm on the bruises and wounds caused by the religious and ethnic crimes. The pain and sinfulness described by The kite runner is as old as mankind itself, the folly and the animality too. Yet a message of hope and benevolence emerges of the rubble which so pitilessly crushes bodies, hearts and souls. As fragile as a kite in the winter sky, as faded as an old photo, as distant as a lost memory, but it’s there, waiting for children to be born again, and innocence to smile once more.
If The kite runner grips you so well from the beginning onwards, it’s because of the necessity of its plot. Crime, punishment, redemption: a classic pattern, but associated with a clever flashback structure, and the charm and appeal of a visit through a history one wonders at re-discovering, it works perfectly. What has Amir has done, why he has done it, the consequences of this deed and the way he will be brought to amend things: this slowly evolves against the backdrop of the father’s story, which we weren’t aware of at the beginning: and thus we follow the events on two planes, and a logic articulation slowly emerges from them. Some events which first appear like coincidences are in fact soberingly meaningful consequences of the double structure. We might even see the plot as a three-tier system, because we have Amir’s childhood events, his adult’s perspective, and, looming behind, Baba’s life events that have influenced everything.
So that even if Amir is the literary hero of the book (the narrator), his “heroism” owes much to the two other heroes, Baba and Hassan, who are the real moral heroes. Who they are and what they have done before him helps Amir to become a hero, but after them. The moral stature of the father grows throughout the book, as more and more witnesses testify to it. Courage vs. cowardice becomes one of the novel’s great themes. One illustration: whereas one would say, because this belongs to the XXth century’s historical legacy, that cowardice is in the end wiser than courage (wars recognizing no moral values anymore), Baba represents the enduring virtue of courage even in the face of contemporary nihilistic wartime amoralism. The scene where he stands up to defend the unknown feminine co-traveller during the flight out of Afghanistan, and so nearly misses being shot down by an unknown Russian soldier who had been eyeing the young woman: such courage might seem futile and reckless. Post-nazi, post XXth-century-horrors conventional wartime wisdom have long prepared the spectator for another code of morals. Why risk your life for a show of courage which your enemy will never recognize as such? Why remain human in front of beasts? Well, Baba standing up that night, superbly defiant of such calculations is a witness to a courage we all need, in fact. Courage contains perhaps a certain naivety, or thoughtlessness. Too much thinking, and you are in Hamlet’s boots. But that’s being unmindful of a reality which the book stresses so well: the penitent’s courage.
Throughout religious history, pilgrimages have asked, and needed a special form of courage: one that is made of patience, endurance, and acceptance. But those who left their comfort and their peace to endure the troubles of travel and unknown territories were goaded along by another force: a need for atonement and purification. When one’s consciousness of sin, or perception of unworthiness reaches a certain degree (neither too shallow nor too deep; between acceptability and collapse), one normally reacts in ways to re-establish the level of purity or self-esteem one has lost. Hence the energy. Amir’s return to Afghanistan, away from the comfortable life he’s created for himself in San Francisco, is one such pilgrimage. His character is a combination of acceptance and disgust of cowardice, which he knows belongs to his personality. On the other hand, even if he feels responsible for what he as a child did to Hassan, he knows that children cannot be held responsible to the same extent that adults can. So what really makes him go back? And, when he’s back in front of Rahim Khan (the old friend of his dad’s who phoned him at the beginning of the novel), in Peshawar, why does he accept the terrible mission that Rahim asks him? Why doesn’t he tell himself (and thus justify his adult’s mental construction) that life needs oblivion, that memory itself helps people forget, as a good protection for the balance of the self?
Here is Amir at that crucial moment. Let’s see his strain of thoughts:
“Rahim Khan had wanted me to stay with him a few more days, to plan more thoroughly. But I knew I had to leave as soon as possible. I was afraid I’d change my mind. I was afraid I’d deliberate, ruminate, agonize, rationalize, and talk myself into not going. I was afraid the appeal of my life in America would draw me back, that I would wade back into that great big river and let myself forget, let the things I had learned these last few days sink to the bottom. I was afraid I’d let the waters carry me away from what I had to do.”
The impulse that makes him go towards his destiny (which takes the form of his duty) is, we can notice, less decision than fear. He repeats it: I’m afraid. What is he really afraid of, in fact? All cowards have felt this sort of fear. In fact, he’s afraid of the other Amir, the subconscious Amir who has been pulling the strings of his memory and of his sense of guilt ever since he started growing up with it. He’s afraid that that Amir might win, the selfish, forgetful, fatalistic Amir. What’s poignant is that another Amir still exists, the other Amir who will be revealed during the journey back to Kabul, and one can wonder where this Amir comes from. This one tries to resist to the tide of forgetfulness, struggling against the enemy within, a padding memory that protects him (and all of us) from the pain which guilt inflicts upon us, and makes us forget. This reluctant Amir finally accepts to go back to Afghanistan and deal with a responsibility which he recognises as his.
I’d say this Amir is a child of Baba’s courage. For when Rahim Khan phones, long after Baba has died, it’s Baba’s friend on the phone, it’s Baba’s memory that speaks to Amir’s conscience, and wins over Amir’s memory. In a sense, and contrarily to the common pattern (“the child is father to the man”, Wordsworth), we have Amir the adult winning over Amir the child. But that child had been lied to, and so the violence and the shame felt by the child had to be fought against as a result of the lying. It’s interesting to see that Amir, upon coming back to the US, will nip the burgeoning lie concerning Sohrab (book p.331). He will not repeat the process which led to his catastrophic behaviour with Hassan. America’s freedom enabled at least that. And his redemption.
It’s going to be difficult to mention this redemption without giving away the plot, and I won’t do that (much of the book’s appeal depends on the power of its plot), but on the other hand, I cannot rightly not speak about it! Amir’s crime, his sin, originated in a violence that he was made to inflict upon others, having taken his part of the responsibility in the process. And he is redeemed thanks to a symmetrical violence inflicted upon him. That is at least how he describes the liberating process. One must add that he was saved war and perhaps death by his father’s escape out of Afghanistan, and so similarly, for his redemption to be complete, he also has to save someone. Now this symmetry, with all its satisfying balancing of guilt and reparation, belongs to the essence of justice, of course. The kite runner, in effect, describes an appropriate judgement (or retribution). On the other hand, one might question such an obligation on the very grounds discussed above, ie, that of a child’s responsibility to whom one has lied: a double clause for legal irregularity. From that point of view, Amir might even be said to be innocent, and the guilt that was thrust upon him, declared an additional act of inhumanity.
So the question is, what nevertheless justifies his battle against himself, and the eventual victory of the adult Amir over the child he has been? The answer to this question opens the door to the novel as controlled fiction, because if Khaled Hosseini has decided to write such a story, it’s because he has seen that justification. Could it be that something in an author’s creation corresponds to a recovered childhood? Art as becoming a child once again? Or perhaps, through this process, becoming an adult? Choosing one’s life? Towards the end of the book, Sohrab says: “I want my old life back”. That sort of declaration is that of a suffering body, a suffering soul. The secret of happiness is looking not back, but forward, and wanting to live what’s ahead. Yet childhood in its essence also lies ahead, because a life worth living is one of innocence and freedom, and that giving children the chance to live these to the full depends on parents who have made peace with the child within.
(Funny how I know I am stopping here, but am only in the middle of what I could say about it! But all good things have to end, haven’t they?)
The kite runner came out in 2007 (director Marc Forster, who also directed Quantum of Solace), and on the whole, the spectators who left their reviews on IMDb were very enthusiastic. Even the delicate book-film transition was generally deemed good. I haven’t seen it, and I feel I don’t need to see it, that it might actually spoil the story’s representation which is now planted in my brain. Anyhow, that a good film was made so soon after the book was written certainly testifies to its quality as the classic it is already.