Friday, 15 May 2009

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I’d like to say that The Kite Runner far exceeded my expectations, but I can’t because I didn’t have any. I tried really hard not to have any because I always find that if books have been over-hyped, then they’re never as good as I expect. So I suppose my expectations were pretty low because of this. But despite the hype, this was brilliant.

This is essentially the story of Amir, an Afghan, and his attempt to create a life for himself in the shadow of a betrayal he committed against his friend when they were children. Played out against the background of the unrest in Afghanistan, first with the Soviet invasion and then the Taliban rule, Amir leaves Afghanistan with his father during the unrest, but returns later at the request of a family friend in an attempt to redeem himself. The melancholic tone of the book is set up from the very first chapter, when an adult Amir says

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid, overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws it’s way out. Looking back now, I realise I’ve been peeking into that deserted alley for the past 26 years.”

The story starts with Amir as a child, living in Afghanistan, happy, contented and living a comfortable life. He is great friends with his servant, Hassan, who is a similar age to him. But he is distant from his father, who seems to struggle with the sensitive nature of the child he has brought into the world, and Amir struggles to develop a true bond with his father, and would do anything to make him proud. Throughout the early part of the novel, Amir struggles with how he is supposed to behave towards Hassan and does set him tests to see how subservient he really is. The hierarchy is always there in Amir’s mind and he does question to himself how he actually views Hassan, although he tries to push these thoughts from his mind.

“But he’s not my friend! I almost blurted. He’s my servant! Had I really thought that? Of course I hadn’t. I hadn’t.”

But despite this undercurrent of hierarchy and resentment, Amir and Hassan remain close, take part in the Kite fighting tournament together. But when Hassan runs the kite for Amir, his lower status in society comes into play once again and sets in motion Amir’s betrayal that eventually lead to Hassan leaving Amir’s family. Soon after Amir and his father leave Afghanistan for America and develop a new life and relationship there. Until Amir is forced to return and confront his childhood wrongs, as well as the current state of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Amir is caught between two opposing attitudes. He believes Hassan to be his friend, but his peers and his education instill him with very different, divisive attitudes. His father is distant, and although he obviously cares for Hassan, he doesn’t have the closeness with his father that could explain how he’s feeling. So although it is very difficult to feel that Amir’s eventual betrayal of his friend is anything but horrific, it is possible to sympathise with his feelings of indecision.

I have to say that this is not a cheerful book. Some parts of it are sad, some are downright depressing, and some of the parts set in Afghanistan under Taliban rule are just horrific and really difficult to read. It is a fantastic cultural eye opener though. Afghanistan is not a country I know very much about, and what I do know is all fairly recent stuff from the overthrow of the Taliban rule. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of what seemed to be a fairly sumptuous, fruitful country before the Soviet invasion, to the wrecked, ruined country under Taliban regime, when Amir returns. Not only has the landscape changed, but the nature of the Afghan people themselves. The spirit of friendship and mutual co-operation vanished with the religious doctrine.

I think the religious upheaval in Afghanistan was one of the most interesting parts of the novel for me. Amir and Hassan are part of different branches of Islam, and as a Hazara, Hassan is destined to always be subservient. He is not taught to read, and doesn’t attend school. And this subservience is inbred into him. Even Amir’s father, who is seen as a relatively liberal muslim, sees him as his servant, although always treats him kindly. But Amir’s school friends do not have this same liberal attitude. Amir suffers for being friends with Hassan, and ultimately Hassan suffers for being born what he is. Even in their reltively idyllic childhood, the seeds of unrest and division are present, just waiting for the right climate to come to the surface. Assef, one of Amir’s contemporaries says to Amir and Hassan

“You’re part of the problem Amir. If idiots like you and your father didn’t take these people in, we’d be rid of them by now, they’d all just go and rot in Hazarajat where they belong.”

The horror and melancholy are pretty relentless throughout the novel. But it does end on a hopeful note. Ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship and betrayal and as to which wins out in the end, the novel does at least give us hope that friendship and redemption are powerful enough to come through.


farmlanebooks said...

I loved this book! I'm sure it will become a classic in time. As you say - it is horrific in places, but the ending is uplifting, so it doesn't leave you with a bad feeling.

Have you read A Thousand Splendid Suns? It is equally good, but focuses on the women in Afghanistan. I recommend it too!

Charley said...

Nice review. I'd really like to read this, and also A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Dot said...

I really enjoyed this book and I think your review was great. It's not a nice read but I think it is a worthwhile one.

Jo said...

Jackie, I bought them together so I will read that one soon. I thought I'd read them in publication order.

Charley, I'd reccomend it. But only if you've got some time because I found I couldn't put it down.

Dot,I agree, it's decidedly unpleasant in places but I do think it needs to be read.

Savidge Reads said...

Great rounded review. I read this when the hype hadnt started and was completely blown away by it. An incredibly moving yet anger making novel.

Just Mom said...

You have written an amazing review. I read and enjoyed the book but could never sum it all up as well as you have done.