Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Latecomer's Thoughts on 'The Kite Runner'

I must say it feels strange to be posting some thoughts today on a book that has been so wildly popular for at least four years now, and has been talked and raved about all over the world continuously since its release… talk about being behind the curve! But as they say, better to show up late to the party than never arrive at all…

Regardless of my poor sense of timing, I wanted to offer up some thoughts about a book that has obviously struck a chord with millions of readers and continues to be digested and discussed to this day: Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner. Now that I’ve finally read it, the book’s overwhelming popularity is an interesting (and somewhat perplexing) phenomenon to me. I realize how that sounds, and I don’t mean to say it’s not a good book worth reading – I think it is, though in my opinion it is not without its flaws either. Rather, what surprises me is the degree of its popular appeal relative to its subject matter. I also find it interesting and worth exploring that the book seems to appeal in particular to women. I have no idea why this would be so, but in my own experience, many people told me I should read this book, and for whatever reason, they were ALL women. Obviously this is purely anecdotal evidence and nothing even remotely scientific, but still, I can’t think of another example of that happening.

At any rate, on to the novel itself. As just about everyone in the free world knows at this point, The Kite Runner is the story of a privileged young boy growing up in the Kabul area of Afghanistan in the 1970’s, just before the Russians occupied the country and everything went to hell. He is from a well-off family and his best friend is the son of the servant who serves (and lives in a small shed on) his father’s estate. A tragic event occurs that permanently mars their friendship and leaves the protagonist, Amir, wracked with guilt. They two boys are separated, the country becomes a war zone, old neighborhoods crumble and Amir escapes to America with his father, with whom he longs to connect emotionally but can never seem to. As an adult, Amir returns home to see what’s left of his old country, and learns that his former best friend has been murdered along with his wife – leaving their only son orphaned and alone. The rest of the book entails Amir’s struggle to rescue the boy from the country and adopt him as his own, which he feels would help him to at least somewhat atone for sins committed against his old friend that led to their painful separation and, at least in Amir’s mind, the friend’s tragic death.

Plot-wise, The Kite Runner is an engaging, albeit somewhat familiar, tale of a man trying to atone for wrongs he has committed in his youth to a childhood friend, with healthy doses of class struggle and father-son difficulties mixed in to magnify his sense of guilt and provide the requisite need for personal redemption and meaningful love. I did not think the storyline was anything particularly original, nor did I find the prose to be remarkable in any way – it’s solid and unadorned, but not especially interesting. Some of the plot twists near the end border on the implausible to me, and there seemed to be plenty more opportunities to directly confront demons of the past than real life would naturally afford. (I was also honestly surprised a bit at some of the clich├ęs that were allowed to be kept in the narrative – things like commonly-used phrases or metaphors, or dream sequences in which Amir relives horrific events he witnessed in the past, only to see the man committing the act turn around and reveal his own face!!)

So yes, I did have some issues with the book – but there is much to recommend about it too. What helps it to if not quite overcome, then at least counterbalance, the problems listed above is its setting - both physical and within the context of recent geopolitical history. I don’t think Hosseini was capitalizing on recent events in his home country with this book either, because as he makes clear in the story he’s telling (and herein lies so much of its value and importance), the cultural and political problems ravaging Afghanistan have been going on for decades now – a long and bloody battle for the soul of a nation crippled by rampant poverty, sectarianism and religious zealotry. First the Russians, then the warlords, from whom rose the ugly specter of the Taliban – regardless of who’s been in power, basic life necessities have been cut off, neighborhoods allowed to descend into chaos and destruction, and women suppressed and abused. In short, it’s immediately clear that Hosseini’s not making this up, he’s lived through it – a fact which lends crucial credibility and weight to the narrative, and makes his earnest desire to share the plight of his people through story both admirable and significant.

I say this in part because I recently listened to an interview with Hosseini in which he explained where the impetus to write both this novel and its much-anticipated follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, came from. I was impressed with how articulate and intelligent Hosseini obviously is, his passion for his people and homeland and his humility in the face of the worldwide popular appeal of his work. He makes clear that while his first and foremost priority is to tell stories that human beings of all stripes and backgrounds will be able to relate to, the fact that he can open peoples’ eyes and minds to what is going on in modern Afghanistan while doing so is an added bonus – and an opportunity that he wants to make the most of. From what he was saying, it sounds like his second novel is particularly valuable in this regard, since Afghan women have been enduring repressions and indignities that modern Westerners can barely comprehend, let alone imagine, for centuries. If A Thousand Splendid Suns succeeds in bringing their plight to the fore of readers’ minds in vivid and accurate detail, as I suspect it does, that alone makes it a book worth sharing, reading and discussing.

But The Kite Runner is the topic of this rambling essay, and I’ll conclude with a few thoughts about a question raised earlier: why has this novel proven to be so incredibly popular over the course of the past four years? It’s not a question that lends itself to any one facile explanation, of course. Trying to explain the ebb and flow of popular appeal is like trying to explain why the wind blows where it will. But it is interesting to speculate on why the story of a man looking back on his half-idyllic, half-nightmarish upbringing in Afghanistan and trying to find healing from wounds he has carried since would capture the attention and imagination of so many people around the globe.

The story has so much to do with past regrets, guilt and remorse over the sufferings of those less fortunate, that I wonder if the same overarching themes/instincts, as human as the tendency towards violence (also vividly on display here), are themselves a key to the riddle of the novel’s enormous and enduring impact. In other words, the near-universal embrace of Hosseini and his anguished characters may say a lot about our feelings as Westerners (and, more specifically, Americans) as the violence and heartbreak of this war-torn corner of the world has now hit home for us in a new and frighteningly personal way. Our recent appearance on the stage in this theater of pain has perhaps awakened in us a new and, one can only hope, enduring sympathy for those asphyxiating in the crushing grip of tyranny, injustice and persecution. Any story that holds out the possibility of hope and escape from such horrible conditions is a sure bet to find purchase in the hearts of people of good will everywhere, who look forward to a day when “all the colors bleed into one," and peace will "flow like a river."

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke seems to make an intelligent analysis of "The Kite Runner", which I have not read either but often hear about even this long after it was published. The author seems to have struck a chord with many people around the world, as Duke observes, and he must be full of wonder at his good fortune for having done so. I wonder how long it took him to write or how long he was pondering the book? The success of this book calls to my mind "The DaVinci Code", another book that didn't seem all that well-written which still gained millions of readers. I was talking to my sister recently who liked this book a lot, and she said that she thought "A Thousand Splendid Sons" was a better book - something that seems to confirm Duke's suspicion here. It would be interesting sometime to see if Duke thought so too.