On one level, “The Kite Runner,” the first novel by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini, is the story of a friendship between two Afghan boys, a betrayal, and redemption of sorts. On another, it’s about the enigma of love and exile and the shadows that eternally trail both: loss and the bittersweet burdens of memory. As storytelling, “The Kite Runner” has the sweep of a 21st century sequel to the Thousand and One Nights. As an introduction to the colliding cultures of Afghanistan, it’s a more vivid, accessible portrait than almost any book available to westerners.
Where "The Kite Runner" Fails--and Succeeds
The book falls short only as great literature. The fates of its characters are too tightly determined, the plotting too schematic, the emotions and motivations of Amir, the main character, too transparently contrived, and the writing too seldom inspired—rather than reliably narrative—to let the book soar as art. Nevertheless the novel is a wonderful, satisfying story as well as a corrective to the prevailing assumption about Afghanistan as a one-dimensional country defined by war.
Afghanistan is itself a central character in “The Kite Runner." The country is complex, heart-rending, and in the end impossible for the reader not to identify with as a beloved place of one’s own. Hosseini’s powers of imagination are such that his ability to recreate his experiences as a boy growing up in Afghanistan (then an adult making a life in California) make the reader his accomplice. Amir and his many character flaws become a mirror of Afghanistan’s cragged currents: the reader roots for them both.
A brief step-down from memory aside, “The Kite Runner” opens in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in the early 1970s. Amir is not yet 10 years old. He is the son of a well-to-do patriarch. Hassan is the son of the loyal servant in the house, and Amir’s best friend. Both boys are growing up without their mothers: “While my mother hemorrhaged to death during childbirth,” Amir relates, “Hassan lost his less than a week after he was born. Lost her to a fate most Afghans consider far worse than death: She ran off with a clan of traveling singers and dancers.”
The absence of mothers as a tempering element on the sometimes brutal exigencies of maleness is an undercurrent throughout the novel, unspoken but loud. Neither boy has a mother to turn to, neither boy’s father is an adequate substitute. (“The problem, of course” Amir says of his father, “was that Baba saw the world in black and white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can’t love a person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a little.”) When the boys turn to each other for the unconditional love they miss, only one of them is up to the task: Hassan, who never lets a chance go by to help his friend without also telling him those words that cut through the heart of the book: “For you, a thousand times over.” To which, when it came down to taking a stand when it counted most, Amir could only counter, “But he’s not my friend… He’s my servant!”
Together Amir and Hassan travel the idyll that was Afghanistan in the early 1970s, when they could see movies like “Rio Bravo” and “The Magnificent Seven” many times over, when soccer’s World Cup entranced the nation even though it never fielded a team, when Buzkashi tournaments included Henry Kissinger among their fans and, above all, when kite-flying tournaments busied younger boys (but never girls) and enraptured everyone else on snow days. Calling it a game, however, is misleading.
“The real fun began,” Hosseini writes, “when a kite was cut.” That was the aim of the game—to use the kites’ strings to knife through other kits and plummet them back to earth. Whomever’s kite was left in the air by day’s end was declared the winner. Chasing after downed kits was part of the game. “That was where the kite runners came in, those kids who chased the wind-blown kite drifting through the neighborhoods until it came spiraling down in a field, dropping in someone’s yard, on a tree, or a rooftop. The chase got pretty fierce; hordes of kite runners swarmed the streets, shoved past each other like those people from Spain I’d read about once, the ones who ran from the bulls.”
Hassan was Amir’s kite assistant, but also his kite runner. He had an uncanny ability to know just where a downed kite would find its resting place. For the winner of a kite tournament, getting hold of the last downed kite was also a trophy equal to the victory. Amir put it in his mind to win one winter’s tournament—to win his father’s approval, to thaw the cold war between them, which had set in when Amir’s birth had ended the life of his mother.