Clearly, I am late to this party. About 4 years late.
The Kite Runner was first published in 2003, and was available to US audiences around 2005. It has been one of the more celebrated debuts of an author in recent times. It introduced us to a nation that had lived for so long in violently screaming newspaper headlines, that it had become difficult for us to imagine it as a real place. But there are real people in Afghanistan, real lives.
A few weeks back, I was getting back from work when I saw a neighbor whom I had not seen through most of the summer. I've been away on work he said. 'For three months?' I thought, wondering how many Marriott rewards points I could accumulate if I stayed away that long. Afghanistan, he said. My smile froze in place. 'The Taliban did a damn good job scaring people off the election'. He sounded bitter. Taliban. It was the first time I had heard the word being used by a real person. In terms of something that mattered to them personally. I realized I was scared of the word. Without actually knowing a whole lot about it. And my thoughts started drifting to the book about Afghanistan that seemingly everyone had read but me.
The Kite Runner is, first and foremost, a story. Hosseini is, first and foremost, a storyteller. I have in the past bemoaned the death of the plot in modern literary writing. No such problems for Hosseini. He wants to tell us a story, and it is a darn good one. The writing is spare and in parts, stark. There are no frills that distract from the storyline. The characters are few. Though the story spans about three decades, there is little risk of losing our emotional connection with these characters.
Hosseini opens his book in the last days of the monarchy in Afghanistan. He introduces us to Amir, the son of a successful businessman in Kabul, and his friendship with Hassan, the son of his father's servant. A friendship that spans social and religious boundaries. A friendship that seems built to last. 'For you, a thousand times over.' But you know it isn't going to last. The revolution is underway. The Russians are marching in. And then the Taliban. History has not been kind to Afghanistan. The passage of time seems to bring misery upon misery to a simple, rugged people. The Kite Runner is an introduction to Afghanistan at the personal level. Afghanistan as home, rather than as a headline. And it is a severe, brutal landscape.
The Kite Runner is rich in emotional poignancy, evocative imagery and, at times, startling violence. But most of all, it has Afghanistan. A country we desperately need to learn more about, but one that seemingly has no translators. Where empires go to die.
Which gets me to my two central criticisms of The Kite Runner. First, purely as a story, I think The Kite Runner suffers from trying too hard. The story is too pat. The ironies so perfect and so numerous that they lose resonance. The slingshot that the father promises and son delivers. The womb that obstinately remains barren, as if waiting for its ultimate fate. The kite that breaks a friendship and starts another. The cleft lip that reappears on another face decades later. Too many ironies. Too much fate. Too pat.
Second, as a politico-social commentary. Here, I believe The Kite Runner suffers from not trying hard enough. It does not offer any human understanding of the Taliban. In fact, its portrayal of the Taliban is caricature in the extreme. The members of the Taliban, The Kite Runner tells us, are childhood bullies, pedophiles and sadists. A disease with no cure. This is, in my view, the easy out for the writer. But it is unhelpful. It doesn't get us any closer to knowing how to deal with Talibanism.
The next time I hear my neighbor say the word Taliban when talking about his summer, I know I will cringe again. I will be scared again. I might imagine them even less as something real. Even more as something straight out of a horror film. And that's a pity.