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Saturday, 24 November 2012
The Kite Runner: Review
Literature & Fiction
I should have read this one first.
Some time back I had reviewed Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. I’d actually bought his earlier work, “The Kite Runner” earlier but not got around to reading it till later. Wish I’d read it first.
Why, I’ll tell you in a minute.
First, the story, sans spoilers.
Amir is the son of a rich man in Kabul in the days of the monarchy. His father is a cold, unfeeling man; his mother died giving birth to him. In a corner of his compound is a mud hut where lives his servant, a Hazara (the ethnic Mongoloid and religious Shia double minority of Afghanistan, despised by the majority Pashtuns) man named Ali and his son, Hassan. Ali’s wife ran away soon after Hassan’s birth, which followed soon after Amir’s – they were nursed by the same wet-nurse. Hassan is Amir’s confidant, his playmate, the boy who helps him in championship kite flying and runs down the kites Amir cuts down with his glass-coated string. Amir is also a storyteller – he tells his own versions of popular stories and writes them too, even if the only one he can show them to is his father’s friend, Rahim Khan.
One day in 1975, Amir wins a major kite tourney and Hassan goes to bring the last kite of the day, which Amir had defeated in single combat. He is cornered and raped by a half-German Nazi-worshipping sociopath, Assef, and his cronies. (Amir has had a run-in with Assef earlier, and Hassan had rescued him by threatening to shoot out Assef’s eye with a slingshot, with which he is an expert.) Amir watches the rape but makes no attempt to intervene or even to show himself. From that moment on his guilt turns on himself and he hates Hassan for making him feel guilty. Finally he plants money under Hassan’s mattress, accuses him of theft, and Ali, bitter and angry, knowing this was a plant, takes Hassan away to a village.
By then the monarchy has collapsed, Afghanistan is a republic, and the 1979 Communist takeover in Afghanistan is followed by jihadi rebellion and near anarchy. Like most of the rich, Amir and his father get themselves smuggled out of Afghanistan and end up in San Jose, California, selling goods at a weekend flea market while Amir continues to write his stories. There he meets and falls in love with Soraya, the daughter of an exiled Afghan general. Amir’s father, before dying of cancer, arranges the marriage of the two. The marriage is happy – Amir becomes a successful author as well – but childless. All this while, Amir still has not been able to shed the guilt of what he had done to Hassan many years ago.
Meanwhile the Afghan Communist regime has fallen, the “freedom fighters” of the Mujahideen have fought among themselves and demolished Kabul, then the Taliban took over, to initial raptures from the war-weary citizenry. It is at this time that Rahim Khan, now in Pakistan, contacts Amir and tells him that he must come and meet him because “there is a way to be good again.”
Amir goes over to Pakistan, where he finds his father’s old friend dying of an unspecified disease. Rahim Khan reveals to him that Hassan was actually his half-brother, his father’s son by Ali’s promiscuous and runaway wife, and that in recent years Hassan (who has never forgotten Amir), his wife, and their son, Sohrab, have been staying with Rahim Khan in Amir’s father’s old house in Kabul. But after Rahim Khan left for Pakistan for treatment, the Taliban shot dead Hassan and his wife and put Sohrab in an orphanage. Rahim Khan charges Amir to go and find Sohrab and bring him back.
Driven by an initially suspicious and later supportive Afghan called Farid, an in a false beard, Amir returns to a ruined Kabul and in the orphanage finds that the director has sold Sohrab to a Talib – for money in order to buy food for the rest of the inmates. This Talib is an executioner for the Taliban and Farid and Amir see him in action in Kabul’s football stadium, stoning an adulterous couple to death during the halftime break of a football match. Amir gains an audience with the Talib, who is holding Sohrab as a sex slave. The Talib turns out to be Amir’s old antagonist, Assef, who recognises Amir easily and challenges him to a duel to the death – the winner to take Sohrab. Amir is no fighter, and Assef is about to beat him to death when Sohrab shoots a brass ball into one of his eyes with a slingshot – as Hassan had threatened to do years ago. The desperately injured Amir and Sohrab escape, with Farid’s help, to Pakistan. There begins another struggle on Amir’s part, this time to find a way to get Sohrab back to America.
Right, apart from the ending, that’s the story.
Now: why should I have read this book first?
Because it’s such a totally inferior product to the later “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, that’s why. I don’t mean to say “The Kite Runner” is a bad book – it isn’t, in its own way. But compared to “A Thousand Splendid Suns” it fails – completely. The scenarios are caricatures, many of the characters (like Amir’s father and Assef) are cartoonish, the coincidences worse than incredible.
As for the ending, well, it’s less bad than that of “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, I’ll grant it that – but then it could hardly have been worse than that one. I’m beginning to fear that Khaled Hosseini’s writing style invariably includes weak endings.
My favourite moment of the book is actually a story written by Amir early on, in fact – his first real story, about a man who found a cup where tears would be turned to pearls. The man, turned greedy by the riches he could have, found ways of making himself cry so as to drop his tears into the cup and get pearls. The story ended with him sitting on a mountain of pearls, weeping into the cup, with the body of his beloved wife, whom he had murdered, in his arms. Excellent story. Better by far than the book itself.
My surprise at the resemblances of Farsi with Hindi has been overtaken at its similarities with Bengali, a language right at the other end of the Indian subcontinent. Words like “Baba” for father, and “Kaka” for uncle, are identical in the two. I don’t know how that came about. Maybe some linguist can enlighten me?
Conclusion: if you can only read one of the two books, read “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. It’s better. If you’re going to read both, read “The Kite Runner” first, or you’ll spoil your enjoyment of it afterwards. Though there is little enough in it to enjoy.