Closing Sohrab’s door, I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.
I’ve touted Beloved as the best literary novel of the last 25-30 years, perhaps of the entire canon of postwar American literature. It told a story of a woman while telling the story of a people, and it touched on the emotions and events that drive and define our lives by using small and large events in one character’s life as metaphors for universal themes. No book since then had come close to this combination of great themes rolled up in a great story told in brilliant language.
Until The Kite Runner, that is.
Published in 2005 and headed for theaters in a film adaptation this fall, The Kite Runner is easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read and meets all the criteria one could ask for in a work of literature. The plot is riveting. The emotions it describes and that it elicits are genuine. The characters are fleshed-out and compelling. The prose sparkles. The story behind the story is real, and the layers of metaphor only make the surface plot more interesting and believable. And the novel relies on very little in the way of coincidence or other ridiculous plot contrivances that ruin a lot of novels, especially first ones.
The main plot itself revolves around the narrator-protagonist Amir, starting from his youth in Kabul and his childhood friendship with Hassan, the son of the family’s servant and a member of an ethnic minority known as the Hazaras. Hassan is a completely devoted friend to Amir, and Amir eventually betrays him, setting off a lifelong quest for redemption through his acts, a redemption – or, perhaps more accurately, self-forgiveness – he can’t find until he leaves America (his new home) and returns to Afghanistan. It’s a sad tale with flashes of hope and a certain streak of faith and even spirituality in the face of horrors, both personal and societal.
And much as Beloved tells the history of African-Americans and Absalom, Absalom! tells the history of the American South, The Kite Runner tells the history of Afghanistan, through actual events that the characters experience and through characters who serve as metaphors for peoples and nations in the history of that country. The rape of Hassan represents the rape of Afghanistan, with Hassan’s loss of innocence standing in for the end of the one period of stability and economic progress in Afghanistan’s history. One female character’s barrenness stands for the devastation wreaked on Afghanistan, first by the Soviets, then by the Taliban. And so on.
While these other attributes contribute to the book’s literary value, Hosseini’s storycraft is what really sets The Kite Runner apart as a reading experience. His plot twists are rarely outrageous and never gratuitous; he doesn’t provide pat resolutions or twist characters to make them act differently in key situations. Instead, he lets the story unfold in a natural if accelerated way, directing his lens in and out of the action as needed. It makes a melancholy book where a handful of scenes of frenetic action are separated by long periods of thought and descriptions of emotions into a page-turner that you can’t put down.
Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is now out in hardcover.
One other point that really hit me while I read The Kite Runner was the richness of Afghan traditions, particularly around Amir’s engagement and wedding. Although it is a typically Western view that such traditions – particularly if they’re tied to religion – are dated and restrictive and profoundly anti-intellectual, rituals and traditions are a part of our culture and they help define who we are. I often talk about my Italian heritage, but my identity is unabashedly American. I have no Italian traditions; even the simple Italian tradition of the long evening meal, still practiced at least on occasion in Italy, has never been a part of my life. Anyone I could ask about these traditions has forgotten or is already dead. I have no traditions, and as a result, I know less of who I am. If you have those traditions in your family, or still have someone who can teach them to you, do all you can to sustain them, so that you, your children, and their children will all know better who you are.