The Kite Runner
I first read The Kite Runner almost two years ago. But as I prepared to lead a book club discussion on it last week, I realized that though I had blogged about a local lecture by author Khaled Hosseini, I never actually discussed the book itself. Numerous critical reviews have endorsed this remarkable novel, so rather than offer yet another plot summary, let me just explain one of the reasons I appreciate it.
This story taught me more about Afghanistan than any history book could. Like many of my generation, I knew very little about this country until 9/11, so I was familiar only with television images of Taliban soldiers beating burka-clad women for speaking too loudly in the marketplace. I had no idea that in the late 60s and early 70s, the country was significantly Westernized, the citizens wearing jeans, driving Mustangs, drinking Coke, and watching overdubbed American movies at the cinema. One of my favorite paragraphs describes Amir’s reaction when his father sets him straight about his favorite actor: “Hassan and I were stunned. Dazed. John Wayne didn’t really speak Farsi and he wasn’t Iranian! He was American…we saw our favorite Western, The Magnificent Seven, thirteen times. With each viewing, we cried at the end when the Mexican kids buried Charles Bronson—who, as it turned out, wasn’t Iranian either.”
Yet racial and gender issues were as complicated in Afghanistan as they were in the U.S. during those years. The protagonist’s mother, until she died in childbirth, was a humanities professor at the university. I didn’t know women had ever held such distinguished roles in a Middle Eastern society. But the culture maintained a double standard, ostracizing women who had demonstrated questionable morals while dismissing such behavior among young men as normative. Even well-respected women were “kept” by their husbands, a mindset that prevailed in the community of Aghan exiles in the U.S. which Amir eventually joins. Amir believes that his mother-in-law, who gave up a singing career to please her husband, loves her new son mostly because: “I had relieved her of the greatest fear of every Afghan mother: that no honorable khastegar would ask for her daughter’s hand. That her daughter would age alone, husbandless, childless. Every woman needed a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her.”
A class structure existed in Afghanistan in which ethnic Hazaras continued to be looked down upon, and sometimes persecuted, by Pashtuns. Hazaras functioned mostly in subservient roles, enjoying playmate status with Pashtun children until they became teenagers and class distinctions had to be reckoned with—much the same as black and white children in the U.S. This racism, combined with Amir’s childhood struggle to relate to his father, sets the stage for the main conflict of the novel.
As the story advances we get a first hand account of the Russian takeover and then the rise of the Taliban, radically altering the Afghan national identity. The Taliban oppression and cruelty was made even more severe to me compared to the imperfect but relatively harmonious prior decades.
So the story is a great history lesson, and one that has stayed with me because it is told with humor, tenderness, and irony. It is one of few books that deserve their #1 New York Times bestseller status. As I told my book club group on Friday, I consider this among the top 5 novels I’ve read, ranking up there with the untouchable My Name is Asher Lev and Too Late the Phalarope.
Many of you have read this book by now, perhaps multiple times, and maybe even blogged about it. But it’s so good you still want to talk about it, right? So please leave a comment about an aspect of the book you particularly appreciate. What character did you develop the greatest affinity for? Did the history surprise you? How does this compare to other favorite novels set in a different culture?