My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini is not a true story and this needs to be clear. Crystal clear. Much of the hype surrounding this fictive world from individuals who often spoke to me about this book was that the story was a true one.
If you think Khaled is the boy Amir who witnesses his servant and childhood friend, Hassan, being anally raped in an alley and does nothing and then seeks a life-long journey of redemption, then I am afraid your credulity may make it difficult to separate fact from fiction in any story or event.
In this social media age this phenomenon is ever growing among the masses concerning even diurnal activities of rather diminishing significance. I have told my university students “to wake up”—meaning to wake up to the real world and start thinking and acting for one’s self—and so it is also time for America and its readers to wake up to the absurdity and simplicity of reality in literature (if one can argue such a thing, and I know I can). To believe or not to believe, this too is a question one needs to consider.
In publishing, especially more so now than it was some ten years ago, Creative Non-Fiction and Memoir has taken precedence over Fiction. Readers want to not only hear a great story, immersing themselves into a vivid world, they also want to believe it’s real. These readers simply do not want to be tricked. And ultimately Fiction must use its craft tricks (the same as Creative Non-Fiction) in order to convince the reader of the validity of the story.
The times past where Coleridge’s 1817 “suspension of disbelief” reigned supreme among literature and readers (i.e., the reader was burdened with the effort of making an attempt at believing in a fiction and where the reader was expected not to consider the author was the narrator and/or the protagonist and/or the author was not related to any part of the narrative) is all but coming to an end.
Much of this failure to maintain a healthy suspension of disbelief and instead seek out a “promotion of belief” (i.e., the writer is burdened with the effort of making fiction believable and where the reader is expected to consider the author as the narrator and/or the protagonist and/or the author is in reality directly related to the narrative) is likely an effect from the market-voyeurism found in social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram. Most people these days want a glimpse into the “realness” of other people’s lives, and this too—in business—has created a culture driving for mindfulness and authenticity.
The problem with The Kite Runner, however, is when the public begins to blur the lines between author and story and believe that Fiction is Non-Fiction, and that story is fact or at least a memory of an event. This creates false empathetical sympathy from reader to author, therein further instigating a drive in unmerited sells. What should drive sells in every case of a new book, regardless if the author has written twenty books or is making a debut, should be the essence of the plot’s meaningfulness and its overall success to tell a story well and to have that narrative be partitioned into some realm that is considered to be art. And in the case of The Kite Runner the story just doesn’t hold up.
What the author, Khaled, does do well, as described above as in tricking the reader into believing this story is a true one (as in actually having happened to him when he was a boy), is first using a first person point-of-view narrator (e.g., “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 its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years” [p1]), and incorporating his childhood home of Afghanistan and its culture into the fictive story (e.g., “When we were children, Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the driveway of my father’s house and annoy our neighbors by reflecting sunlight into their homes with a shard of mirror. We would sit across from each other on a pair of high branches, our naked feet dangling, our trouser pockets filled with dried mulberries and walnuts. We took turns with the mirror as we ate mulberries, pelted each other with them, giggling, laughing” [p3]). Here the combinations of first person “I” and details relating to specificity within a certain time period and place greatly enhance the likelihood of “tricking” the reader into a promotion of belief.
But as we dig deeper into the story these little tricks continue to lose strength and eventually become absurd mechanics with little to no weight regarding believability; even when the believability of a fiction should be much simpler than creating a promotion of belief for Creative Non-Fiction. But The Kite Runner’s narrative starts to show its holes and these holes drain any real pleasure from the reading experience.
Before the kite fighters take to the streets and before a very young and rich Amir wins the tournament (also not believable since everything good keeps happening to the master Amir and everything bad keeps happening to the servant Hassan), Hassan encourages Amir:
“Then he stepped toward me and, in a low voice, said something that scared me a little. ‘Remember, Amir agha. There’s no monster, just a beautiful day.’ How could I be such an open book to him when, half the time, I had no idea what was milling around in his head? I was the one who went to school, the one who could read, write. I was the smart one. Hassan couldn’t read a first-grade textbook but he’d read me plenty. That was a little unsettling, but also sort of comfortable to have someone who always knew what you needed” (p 68).
Certainly Hassan’s advice is sweet and sincere but it is clear this is an author and not a child shaping the characters’ dialogue and thoughts. And that, therefore, makes it hard to believe.
But what is really hard to believe is what Amir does after winning the kite tournament. Hassan (the kite runner) runs off to get the loser’s kite as a reward for his master Amir. As time passes, Hassan still has not returned and Amir goes in search of his servant and friend.
“There were two things amid the garbage that I couldn’t stop looking at: One was the blue kite resting against the wall, close to the cast-iron stove; the other was Hassan’s brown corduroy pants thrown on a heap of eroded bricks… [notice the key detail of “pants” here that invokes “trouser pockets” that appeared on page three, first paragraph and the constant mention of trousers, jeans, pants or “cowboy pants” throughout the novel]
“Assef knelt behind Hassan, put his hands on Hassan’s hips and lifted his bare buttocks. He kept one hand on Hassan’s back and undid his own belt buckle with his free hand. He unzipped his jeans. Dropped his underwear. He positioned himself behind Hassan. Hassan didn’t struggle. Didn’t even whimper. He moved his head slightly and I caught a glimpse of his face. Saw the resignation in it. It was a look I had seen before. It was the look of the lamb…
“I actually aspired to cowardice, because the alternative, the real reason I was running [away], was that Assef was right: Nothing was free in this world. Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba. Was it a fair price? The answer floated to my conscious mind before I could thwart it: he was just a Hazara, wasn’t he?…
“And that was as close as Hassan and I ever came to discussing what had happened in the alley. I thought he might burst into tears, but, to my relief, he didn’t, and I pretended I hadn’t heard the crack in his voice. Just like I pretended I hadn’t seen the dark stain in the seat of his pants. Or those tiny drops that fell from between his legs and stained the snow black” (p 81, 82, 85, 86).
If you are still not clear as to what has happened in the three above paragraphs, let me sum it up:
A) Amir wins the kite fighting tournament after Hassan has encouraged him to face his fear,
B) Hassan, the kite runner, chases after the last kite to fall in hopes of returning it (which he does) to Amir so that Amir can take the kite to his father (Baba) and feel honored,
C) Amir watches Assef (the neighborhood bully who grows up to become a warlord who rapes children, even Hassan’s own son many years later) rape Hassan in an alley,
D) Amir hides the fact from Hassan that he knows of the rape,
E) Amir says nothing because Hassan is a Hazara and Amir is a Pashtun, a racial and ethnic divide that further establishes a chasm between two innocent, childhood friends,
F) Hassan limps off, bleeding on the snow, and Amir takes the blue kite to his father
G) Amir is seen as the hero of the day, Hassan draws inward,
H) And the story, sad to say, doesn’t get much better.
And what happens later in the book? (Stop now if you don’t want to know or keep reading if you want to save yourself some time and money…)
Amir grows up and becomes a successful novelist (again the rich benefiting from class status); Hassan grows up and remains poor and he and his wife are later executed outside Amir’s childhood home; Assef grows up to become a warlord to torture and rape more children; Hassan’s son, Sohrab, is also sexually abused by Assef, and Amir returns to Afghanistan to try and save Sohrab and bring him back to America.
As a whole story, The Kite Runner doesn’t meet the standard of what I would classify as beautiful art. As a parallel example, a female writer in the New York Times Bookends section confessed that one reader bought her used book for ten cents and after reading it the reader wanted to commit suicide (as a writer I work hard on my novels and never want any reader to feel demoralized but uplifted and inspired and I would have to seriously question the intent of my narrative decisions if any reader felt in such a way where they did not value life). There are, however, key moments along the way in The Kite Runner that do stand out and question the overall validity and believability of the plot.
Regardless, The Kite Runner does have its moments, and below is my favorite one:
Amir is alone with his father and they are about to have a conversation on theology, religion and morality,
“Do you want to know what your father thinks about sin?”
“Then I’ll tell you,” Baba said, “but first understand this and understand it now, Amir: You’ll never learn anything of value from those bearded idiots.”
“You mean Mullah Fatiullah Khan?”
Baba gestured with his glass. The ice clinked. “I mean all of them. Piss on the beards of all those self-righteous monkeys…”
“Now, no matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. Do you understand?”
“No, Baba jan,” I said, desperately wishing I did. I didn’t want to disappoint him again…
“When you kill a man, you steal a life,” Baba said. “You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. Do you see…”
“There is no act more wretched than stealing, Amir,” Baba said. “A man who takes what’s not his to take, be it life or a loaf of naan…I spit on such a man. And if I ever cross paths with him, God help him. Do you understand?”
I found the idea of Baba clobbering a thief both exhilarating and terribly frightening (p 18-20).
I found The Kite Runner to have had some wonderful moments of moral inspiration that were, by the end, superseded by ghastly cases and examples of immorality that often slipped into mawkishness and simple absurdity.
Not a strong recommend.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers