I remember a character on the Sopranos once saying something along the lines of: “America is the only country people expect to be happy. Everywhere else they expect to be unhappy and are surprised when they aren’t.”
It’s a fitting theme for Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner.
Amir is the son of Baba, a wealthy Afghan businessman. Unlike his bold father, Amir is timid, shameful, almost cowardly. His foil is Hassan, the son of Baba’s servant, and Amir’s constant playtime companion. While Amir is shy and bookish, Hassan is cheerful and athletic. On the surface, the two are best friends, but the truth is a bit more complicated. Amir is a Pashtun, a Sunni Muslim, the revered class in Afghanistan. Hassan is a Hazara, a Shiite, the reviled servant class. So while their childish romps are for the most part free of racial or class-bigotry, there’s always an ugly threat in the shadows.
During the annual kite running contest, of which the book draws its title and central thread, Hassan and Amir are victorious, cutting down all rival kites. Hassan promises to retrieve the final trophy kite for Amir. It is an act of friendship clothed in the garb of servitude. However, tragedy strikes in the form of a racist sociopath, who corners and shames Hassan. Amir comes across the terrible scene, and yet does nothing, watching frozen at the entrance to the alleyway.
After, the tranquility of childhood is shattered. Hassan and his father move away to live with their own Hazara people in poverty. Coups and invasions begin to crack apart Afghanistan, and Amir migrates to America with his father. It will be years before he can confront the shame and cowardice that broke his innocence.
The strength of the book lies in the themes of blood and shame, nationality and culture. The prose is simple and rudimentary for the most part, occasionally touching on stark imagery of Afghan’s mountains, or the jumbled heaps of a San Francisco immigrant bazaar. Hosseini intersperses dialog with authentic Farsi and Urdu words, which bring a nice rhythm and tone. The final chapters in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are surreal, very literally medieval times filled with AK-47s and landmines.
While some parts of the plot are contrived and unrealistic, they’re perfectly acceptable because they enhance the themes. Afghanistan is an interesting cultural blend. On one hand, Afghans are bold and defiant, dwelling in harsh mountains, fighting against invading empires for hundreds of years. But they can by cynical and stuck in tradition, from religious extremism to class bigotry.
At first, I was annoyed with Alim. I’m usually not a fan of weak protagonists, preferring strong central characters (Howard Roark, Ender Wiggin). But Alim is a perfect analogue for Afghanistan. As a child, there is a promise of great and beautiful things, friendship with diverse peoples (Hassan), success (victory at the Kite Flying contest). But as he grows older, the purity of his childhood is very literally raped (by outside invaders), and he is forced into shameful exile and death. Only by facing his shameful conceptions and confronting the extremists is there any hope.
Yet the final destination for Alim is America, a place he “can bury his memories.” Perhaps there can never be joy in a place like Afghanistan, a harsh land destroyed by rockets and religion alike. But at least the brave ones can bring their stories and traditions to the melting pot.
Maybe one day, when the terrible violence of prideful irrationality runs its course, they can return and start anew.