THIS IS a wonderful book. Tense, exhilarating, at times unbearable, it is
the story of Amir and Hassan, boyhood playmates in Afghanistan, whose lives
unfold amid the turmoil of Russian, then Taliban, rule.
Twelve-year-old Amir longs for the approval of his macho father, and finds
refuge in his friendship with the son of the family servant. Hassan, a
low-caste Hazara, is devoted to him, making his breakfast, launder-ing his
clothes, and standing up to the menacingly-drawn local bullies on his behalf.
But it is a devotion that will cost Hassan dearly.
In a bid to prove himself, Amir resolves to win the town’s annual
kite-running tournament. Kites with glass-encrusted string fight each other to
stay in the air, while the losing kites are run or chased down the town’s
winding streets. Hassan is “the best kite runner in Wazir Akbar Khan, maybe in
the whole of Afghanistan”, but what happens to him on the day of the tournament
shatters both boys’ lives, and leaves one of them yearning for redemption.
The climatic events of the tournament occur just a third of the way into
this book, but Khaled Hosseini expertly keeps the reader’s attention, as Hassan
and Amir’s childish adventures give way to a much larger stage. Afghanistan
falls first to the Russians, then to the warlords, and then to the Taliban.
The community of Wazir Akbar Khan is thrown into turmoil, and each family
must make the agonising decision to flee or to stay. For those who leave, there
is a gut-wrenching escape in the back of a fume-filled petrol tanker, a
joint-rattling journey over the mountains into Pakistan, and new lives to be
begun in the United States.
The pace continues as marriages are made in the New World, and children
dreamt of. Almost incidentally, there is a tenderly drawn picture of Afghans
making the best of life in exile in the flea markets, garages, and drugstores
of San Francisco.
Yet, as the years roll forward, the long-ago events of the kite tournament
clamour for attention. Hosseini’s central character must face his past, and
discover whether “there is a way to be good again”.
The last section of the book enters darker territory, as painful truths are
revealed, a search for a child begins, and a long overdue punishment is
embraced in Taliban-controlled Kabul.
This is Khaled Hosseini’s first novel — born in Afghanistan, he was granted
political asylum in the United States in 1980 — and it sings with love for his
homeland, and horror at its fate. Out of the news, Afghanistan continues its
tenuous political recovery, but Hosseini’s spare yet graphic accounts of the
devastation wrought by the Taliban — hospitals in ruins, a public stoning
at a football match — reveal more effectively than any news report the
challenge that the country faces.
But the book also conjures up a side of Afghanistan, and of the whole Arab
world, that we seldom see. In “the smell of walnuts and oranges”; in the winter
snow, brilliant against Hassan’s green chapan (tunic); in the aromatic quarma
and succulent kabob, served with steaming bowls of rice; and in the convivial
parties at Amir’s father’s house — we glimpse the beauty, the joy, and the
sheer humanity of Afghanistan.
So this is a book that builds bridges. Intelligent, fearful Amir, convinced
he is a traitor, and unable to forgive himself, is not first an Afghan or a
Muslim, but a man just like us. His Muslim practice, the daily namaz, or
prayer, seems akin to our own Christian devotion, since it is inspired by the
failings and fears of his life story.
Through him, we grasp the age-old truth that behind all conflicts there are
families, children, the rich and the poor, the small-time cowards, and the
unsung heroes. So this country and its people are no longer just “out there”,
but somehow part of us.
Reviewers have described The Kite Runner as tear-jerking, generous, haunting
and compassionate, and it is all that. Not many writers can weave together
themes of violence, adultery, child abuse, exile and self-doubt without ever
falling into chiché or pathos.
There are answers at the end, but they are not easy or complete ones. And
Amir and Hassan interrogate the reader far beyond the final page. They seem to
ask what the future holds for Afghanistan. How can her children be healed?
Indeed, the book is dedicated to the children of Afghanistan. But, beyond that,
The Kite Runner asks whether you can put the past behind you. Can sins be
atoned for? Is redemption real? These are apt questions for a Christian
The Revd Briony Martin is Assistant Curate of All Saints’, Leatherhead,
in the diocese of Guildford.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, is published by Bloomsbury,
2003, at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 0-7475- 6653-4.
THE KITE RUNNER — SOME QUESTIONS
How does Amir’s relationship with his father change throughout the novel?
What do you think are the reasons for this?
Amir and Hassan do not have a relationship of equals. Why is Amir so cruel
to Hassan at times? How does Amir’s discovery of the true nature of their
relationship affect his thinking about Hassan?
What is the place of women in the book? How are women treated differently in
Afghanistan and the United States?
What motivated Amir to ignore what happened to Hassan on the day of the kite
tournament? Why does it take so long for him to find peace over this matter?
In what ways did moving to the US influence Amir’s decision to seek
Does this story shed any light on the attitudes of asylum-seekers towards
their new homes?
How does the journey of escape from Afghanistan mirror Amir’s search for
Assef believed he had received a message from God when he was in prison. How
do people use divine revelations to back up their own desire for power?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 August, we will print extra
information about the next book. This is The Leopard by Guiseppi de
Lampedusa. It is published by Harvill at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1896 into an
aristocratic family, although by the time of his birth the family had lost much
of its wealth. In the First World War, he served in the Italian army and was
captured in Hungary, but managed to escape. He married in 1932, although he did
not always live with his wife. Ill health prevented Lampedusa’s planned
diplomatic career, and, after a nervous breakdown and his mother’s death, he
turned to writing. He published little during his lifetime. The Leopard was
originally rejected by publishers, but finally appeared in 1958, the year after
Fabrizio Corbera is Prince of Salina in Sicily, when Garibaldi sails for
the island with his troops, in order to bring about unification of Italy. The
story spans the 50 years that follow, telling how these historical events
affect the Prince’s way of life, and charting the death of Sicilian aristocracy
and the rise of the middle classes. Fabrizio wants to cling to the old order,
but is influenced by his nephew, who joins the movement for change. He has to
decide whether to stand out against the new ways or learn to accept them. The
Prince’s character is based on members of Lampedusa’s family.
Books for the next two months:
September: A Shepherd’s Watch by David Kennard
October: Befriending the Stranger by Jean Vanier