The Kite Runner

Publié le 16 Février 2009

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.

   Does anybody’s?

   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 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 too, 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 (in its pacifist version) 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.

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Book reviews

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Julia Moore 05/02/2012 21:20

Great review, Yves.  I'm wondering if you're planning to review Hosseini's follow-up book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I found a more compelling read perhaps because it dealt
with the peculiarities of womens' lives in that region of the world.  Any Westerner ought to read both.  I've talked about them on Goodreads (, so please feel
free to find and friend me there.

yves 05/02/2012 21:42

Hello Julia,

Thanks for visiting, and for your interest in books, to which I attach a particular importance!

Yes, I know I haven't reviewed 1000 splendid suns. I found it fascinating, and yet something stopped me from finalising the review, which I had started. Perhaps the excessive suffering
it contained? I don't know that it is more compelling though. Both have a strength and a power that are interconnected, as you know. But anyway, I would probably have to go back and read it
again, because it's been maybe two years now!

Thanks for the link, I'm off to see it now. (time elapses...)

OK I'm back! Julia, just to know if I'm doing things properly: is what you call review on Goodreads a short paragraph or two, or should I be looking for something longer? Thanks!

The Cloudcutter 20/02/2009 16:31

Wow! That is some insight. I remember having some of the same questions myself when I read the book. Your post makes me want to go back and read it all over again. You know it's funny but I see the dvd in my neighbourhood store almost everyday but something always stops me from buying it. I guess like you I also feel that "it might actually spoil the story's representation which is now planted in my brain."

yves 20/02/2009 18:56

Hello Cloudcutter,
I just left a message on your blog saying pretty much the same thing. I tend to be very content with the books' Universe, and not to need the film as a sequel. And indeed, if we need to refresh our
impressions, we can alwxays go back to the story. I normally let some time pass, nevertheless, especailly in the case of such emotional stories.

bawa 20/02/2009 11:44

Actually, when I started to write the commentary, I was going to go into some details but they are really too painful. My friend almost died on the job there (illness).Afghanistan should be a prime example of the horrendous mess you can make looking at things through one's own, egoistic, narrow view of thingsand meaning well without knowledge is much worse than doing nothing at all. Until you reach the point at which it is today, where no one has a clue as to what to do or how to begin to think about it.

yves 20/02/2009 18:52

Hello Bawa,
All I can say is, the book has helped us open our eyes a little on the craziness of what men are capable of. Will they ever learn one day? Is humanity doomed to perpetrate violence?
Thanks for your testimony.

jef 19/02/2009 15:45

hey a little bit starttled that someone -not among my circle of friends who blog- actually read my posts. Thank you.Im struggling with my French though I'm starting to like the language. I just have to be patience though. Its a lot of hard work. One day, ill be good at it, I hope. Je reve de parler francais.Im a fan of Khaled Hosseini. I've read his first book a year ago and then The Kite Runner followed after. I admire his prose and the real-life based stories. It's entertaining and informative at the same time. Im looking forward to read more books of his. I find your fascination with Bollywood interesting. Not a lot of Europeans have same taste as you.Thank you for dropping by.Bonne Journee!

yves 19/02/2009 23:28

Hi Jef,
Hope I didn't startle U TOO much!! I guess that's what U'd call the fun of Innernet, huh?
Anyway it was nice to drop by and share your thoughts about Khaled Hosseini, pleased to see that someone out there enjoys his work and vision. You're quite right about his prose being entertaining
and informative at the same time!
D'you know I'm also learning a language? I suppose you can guess which... with that fascination of Bollywood!! Lekin bahut mushkil hai!
Keep it up with the French. Bon courage, Tu verras, ce n'est pas si difficile que ça, une fois qu'on commence à maîtriser l'essentiel, le reste vient naturellement!!

bawa 18/02/2009 11:09

I had a friend who worked for an NGO in Aghanistan around the time of soviet withdrawal and afterwards, and she really recommended the book and the film as something capturing the country so well...

yves 18/02/2009 21:24

Hello Bawa,
I haven't, as you can imagine, been as fortunate to have had that first-hand experience, but what the book suggests is indeed a vivid representation of the years leading up to, and following the
sucession of regimes in Afghanistan (1975-2000). One of the novel's interests is to bring back to mind all these events we have been following all those years, somewhat distantly, in the news, and
put them into the perspective of an individual who chose to escape from their horror.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.