The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, sweeps across a generation to portray the coming-of-age story of Amir, a boy growing up in pre-Russian Afghanistan. Amir’s first-person narrative recounts his relationship with Hassan, his lower-caste Hazara friend. The friends come from different ethnic backgrounds in an Afghanistan on the verge of rigorous political and social change and their daily experience of ethnic tensions between sunni and shi’a reaches a horrifying conclusion for Hassan. Amir fails to respond and defend his friend and in order to ease his sense of shame he sets in motion a scheme to deliberately shatter the boys’s relationship, leading to a lifetime of guilt.
Depicting a childhood set amongst the social and political tensions of a King’s assassination, a new age a republicanism, and later Russian communist invasion, Hosseini’s novel has much to promise, in which the themes of tragedy, the senselessness of war and prejudice could be explored. Unfortunately the narrative is rife with cliché, sensationalism and two-dimensional characters. There is nothing in Hosseini’s story of childhood that has not been seen before. It is formula popularised in the mid nineties by poignant and humorous novels such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and later Michael Frayn’s Spies. However, Hosseini’s novel not only lacks humour but it is a tired and predictable effort: in The Kite Runner both boys have lost their mothers; Amir has problems relating to his father; in an attempt to win his father’s love Amir takes part in the annual Kite fighting competition and, like a ‘Quidditch’ scene from Harry Potter, is predictably victorious.
The characters are caricatures: victim Hassan is the spiritually all-knowing master kite runner, with superior powers of chasing the plummeting kite – the spoils of competition. The innocent child is portrayed as an angelic, almost omnipotent boy with exaggerated maturity and the understanding and forgiveness of a stoic saint. In contrast, the local bully, Assef, has a typical lack of depth, portrayed as a super villain, a “sociopath”. At one point the narrator even describes the adult Assef’s trait of seemingly stroking an invisible cat, far too pungently redolent of a James Bond villain!
In an attempt at atonement the adult Amir returns to his homeland after years of exile in the US. Here was the possibility to explore the daily life of a Taliban regime. Instead we witness a plot fitting of a trite espionage novel. Packed with caricature, melodramatic plotting and coincidence, the novel is comparable to a soap opera storyline. We even discover the friends’ true relationship, similar to a climatic scene from EastEnders. At a stretch one could compare Hosseini’s writing with that of Charles Dickens – except that Dickens’s writing is superior in structure, narrative voice, prose and humour. Hossieni’s prose is both predictable and distinctly lacking in humour.
It is surely no coincidence that The Kite Runner was a huge success in the US, in the period immediately following September 11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. In the novel the US is the safe haven in which Amir and his father find a new life within the American dream; wonderful propaganda for a government seeking justification for invasion. There is throughout the second half of the novel a sense of what Edward Said termed Orientalism. Said challenged the portrayal of the Orient by those from the Occident as patronising and misleading, writing, “What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialised caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression”. Hosseini makes the same mistake, stereotyping his own Afghanistan. The naturalistic Afghanistan is significantly missing. Instead it is the country of communist invasion, evil militia governance, pubic show-executions, buggery, paedophilia, ethnic hatred, in which the only chance of survival is the United States – as Said would say a “great convenience to one.”
The Kite Runner is not a bad novel. It is, however, unremarkable. It is flawed. The early narrative voice is wonderfully evocative of a child but it is inconsistent, Hosseini’s own voice imposing itself and crediting a mature, psychologically analytical power to twelve-year-old boys. The main issue here is that the rudimentary rules of a creative writing class, (something the narrator himself alludes to in the story) are regularly broken. Hosseini ‘tells’ instead of ‘shows’. He consistently insists on telling us what the child may be thinking in an adult voice instead of showing, whilst crediting the child, especially the victim Hassan, with an incredibly sophisticated mind. The adult writer impresses itself on the child narrative, leaving the reader detached and unable to make up their own mind.
There are moments of heartbreak for even the most hard-hearted reader. For example, the moving oil tank suffocation of a son during a late night escape. Similarly Hosseini draws us into interesting situations such as the Russian invasion or the contrast of his childhood and adult Taliban-run Afghanistan, but each time he brings us to the precipice of something original we are pulled back into an insipid adventure yarn.
There is a feeling that The Kite Runner is merely popularised because of its simple read; a formulaic page-turner. Publicity such as ‘the first novel from Afghanistan’ does not guarantee a great novel. The main problem in reading a popular novel with a gained reputation for brilliance is that when one finally gets around to reading it there is the inevitable disappointment. Enter The Kite Runner.