Friday, June 04, 2010

Friday Forays in Fiction: Reviewing The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini


The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini.
Pub: New York : Riverhead Books, 2003.
324 p.
Subject: Kabol (Afghanistan) -- Fiction.
Male friendship -- Fiction
Social classes -- Fiction
Afghanistan -- Fiction.
Betrayal -- Fiction
Boys -- Fiction.
Bildungsromans.

This is an atypical review and could be classified more as a musing. It is also an examination of the personal experience of reading a powerful story. Not just as a reader but as a writer who aspires to write stories of equal power and artistic excellence.

A bare bones summary of the story: Two Afghanistan boys, Amir and Hassan, have been best friends since infancy although Hassan and his father are servants to Amir's family. As the story opens in the 1970s they are entering puberty as their country faces invasion and are about to face the ultimate test of their love for each other. One of them, Amir who is the narrator and protagonist of this Bildungsroman fails the test in a most egregiously shameful way and by his acts they are torn from each other's lives forever. These events shape Amir's life and the resulting shame and guilt shape his relationships and his psyche over the next two decades. And then out of the blue he is asked to perform a task for Hassan that has the potential power of redeeming his earlier betrayal a task that requires leaving his physically (if not emotionally) comfortable life in America to return to a now Taliban ruled Afghanistan for the first time since his late teens and rescue the one thing more precious to Hassan than their friendship had been.

My encounter with this story was an adventure over time. I first began spotting the reviews online in 2005 after the tradeback was released but the first time I checked it out of the library in early 2007 demand was still high in response to the release of the movie that year and I did not get to it before it had to go back. The second time, a few months later, it, along with A Thousand Suns, was among the dozens of books and DVD I was forced to return unread/unwatched as our library system closed down for six months in April 2007.

By the time the libraries reopened that fall it was off my radar. Then in the summer of 2008 I encountered the DVD on the library catalog and ordered it and the book intending to read the book first but did not get to it before my one-week-only turn came with the DVD and so tho it goes against my preference to always read the book first (if the book came first) I succumbed to temptation and watched the DVD.

I watched it alone in the middle of the night. I was glad I wasn't watching it in a crowded theater sitting beside my first blind date as happened to me with the movie based on Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place when I was 16 which was only the third movie I'd ever seen on the big screen and after which I broke down into the blubbering ugly cry in the lobby requiring my best friend to spirit me away from our dates for twenty minutes of consolation in the powder room foyer. (No, I never saw either of those young men again.)

Yes watching alone has got to beat that but I couldn't help but wish I'd been watching Kite Runner in the company of someone in whose presence I could feel free to display raw emotion.

I finally began reading the book (a large print edition from the library) just before Xmas 2008 and was still reading it in the car a few days after Xmas as my husband drove me to the rendezvous at a central OR truck stop with my sister-in-law who was to take me north to Longview WA where my help was needed in the post surgery/stroke care of my Mom. I was still over 100 (LP) pages from the end when I had to leave the book on the car seat I was vacating.

That was wrenching and left me feeling dislocated from my own life for a full 24 hours and more unable to converse normally and unable to react appropriately with the reality around me for the interference of the story's images, ambiance and immediacy conjured by Hosseini.

Now that's a powerful story!

It was nearly a week (due to major snow on the roads and the three day New Years holiday) before my sister was able to get to the Longview library and check out a copy for me.

Even though I hung onto the book for well over a month after finishing it I could not gather my wits to write a review. Sure I was overwhelmed by personal trauma at the time--my Mom's condition and my own severely bruised shin from tangling with the dishwasher door on New Year's Eve that led to cellulitis and a round of antibiotics and doctor's orders to stay off my foot and keep it above the level of my heart for nearly two weeks which added to instead of lifting my sister's burden--but the truth is that stories this good intimidate me when it comes to reviewing them.

And when I don't get the review done while the book is still in my possession it's chances drop significantly as the already-read-book must compete for the limited space on my always over-extended library card both as an item on request and as an item checked out. Not to mention my over-extended time!

It never occurred to me that I would be able to write coherently and intelligibly enough to do justice to a book without having it beside me, let alone months or years later and without rereading a single paragraph. But then I was stimulated to comment on someone else's review of the book earlier today and found I had plenty to say and though it might not qualify as the proto-typical review of the kind that might get published in the New York Times my comments seemed worthy of posting here nonetheless.

Why is it I persist in believing that a blog's review must meet that standard anyway? Bloggers are rewriting the rule books and redrawing the topographical maps of interactive discussion on such things and thereby taking the baton away from the stuffy profs in hermetically sealed towers.

I have more to say about the story itself but am moving into spoiler territory now. Yet another stumbling block in motivation for writing reviews. How to walk that thin line between saying enough that it isn't shallow gushing (or blehs as the case may be) and giving away too much of the plot while trying to explain an opinion or support a theory about the author's intent or showing why the story compares to such and such other story in a favorable or unfavorable way?

I guess possibly I have more of an affinity for the book report and school essay (does that make me cousin to the stuffy profs?) than the review whose purpose is primarily to recommend (or not) to one who has not yet read it and thus needs be protected from too much information.

Warning. Do not venture below this paragraph if you have not yet read this book but intend to. And I hope by now I've convinced you to.


Amir's act of betrayal against Hassan began when he witnessed his friend being brutally raped by a gang of older boys and first did not step in and then kept silent in the aftermath. But worse than that he began to ignore and ostracize Hassan which culminated in his framing his friend for the theft of the gift his father had given him for his birthday. Which led to Hassan's father removing himself and his son from their longtime service to Amir's family. And thus out of Amir's life which had been his intent. What he thought he wanted until he had it, being under the mistaken assumption that removing Hassan physically from his daily life would result in a lessening of his shame and guilt.

My heart was broken for both boys during the rape scene. They were confronted in that moment with a moral and character defining conundrum that few adults (especially in our coddled Western WASPish culture) have ever been subject to and most would fail miserably.

That being said. I was very disappointed with Amir for choosing to remain silent indefinitely which led to him choosing to distance himself (his heart) from Hassan which fed the shame that led to him choosing to frame Hassan thus forcing his father to leave his family's service which broke Amir's father's heart as this removed his eldest (unacknowledged) son from his life which goes to show what a devastation a shameful family secret can wreak for generations beyond the acts of the individuals involved. It could be said that the secrecy was more damaging and thus more damning than the original 'sin'.

Beyond this I have more questions than definitive statements regarding this story as the multiple dynamics are like a dance and the reader/listener reaction puts up a facing mirror that creates an endless vortex of reaction/counter-reaction and that's before you add in multiple audience member's sharing their reactions among themselves.

A few of my questions:

To what extent is our anger as reader's at Amir created by the narrator's own anger and shame with his younger self? And thus to what extent is it objectively justified? Does the young age of the boys excuse any of it?

To what extent is Amir's father to blame for creating the dynamic between his two sons (the one he acknowledged and the one he could not yet seemed to favor in subtle ways) that led to the tragedy? I ask because I wonder if Amir would have been as insecure in his sense of his father's esteem and love if he had known Hassan was his half-brother by blood? And sans secrecy and shame would the father's behaviors towards the two boys still have been so obnoxiously uneven which was one of the triggers of Amir's jealously and insecurity that were the motive behind his betrayal?

But of course, without an egregious and shocking act of betrayal on the part of the protagonist the story would not have been the one of the ultimate power of love to heal and redeem that it is for how can we (or Amir himself) condemn Amir when his 'victim' Hassan did not, would not and would never hear of it?

"For you a thousand times over." Hassan once said to Amir.


Which BTW leads me to ask, to what extent is Hassan a Christ figure? His goodness and purity of spirit seemed to be of a kind and his sacrifices (his submission to both the rape and the betrayal incited exile) were explicitly willing and free of bitterness on his part. His love for Amir seemed unmovable and incorruptible.

To what extent does Amir's raising in his culture at that time create the attitude that fed his willingness to betray his friend? Included for consideration must be the fact his country had been at war or under the occupation of a foreign power his entire life which led to his witnessing of many injustices that were not rectified by the adults whose role in a peaceful society it would be to establish those boundaries and emulate such character?

And to what extent did Amir's sense of entitlement as the son of a local powerbroker and rich upperclass father and the isolation from his father and his community this created contribute to his weakness of character in the defining moment? Would he have been so desperate for his father's approval if he and his father had not lived in a large multiple floor, many-roomed house with doors shut between them much of the time? And his father's duties keeping him physically unavailable so much of the time and his stoic aloofness emotionally unavailable nearly all of the time?

Which leads to the question: How much did Hassan's loving and close relationship in close quarters with a a father who tho poor, politically powerless, crippled and of a culturally despised race was adoring, dependable and morally sturdy have on his ability at such a young age to survive such devastating injustices as the rape and ultimate betrayal by his beloved friend with his spirit intact?

Who among us could swear that we would fare as well under similar duress?

Tho I could go on and on here I will ask only one more: Would Amir have found it so easy to betray Hassan if his culture, with the apparent approval of his own father had not esteemed Hassan's people as ethnically and racially less-than their own to the point of validating a sense that they were not quite as human?

2 tell me a story:

Sheila (Bookjourney) 6/05/2010 6:22 AM  

Joy,

I am glad you posted your review. As book reviewers, I don't think we are to stick to any sort of mold in our reviews. We add our own personality to the review and send it out into the world.

I enjoy writing the passionate reviews like this one, a lot more and seem to get more reaction out of my readers by engaging the emotions that a book brings out in me.

Great post here and I forgot to mention yesterday when you listed your questions, asking to what extent is Hassan a Christ figure, I hadn't thought about that but you bring up another excellent point. I keep thinking when Amir throws the fruit at Hassan and Hassan picks one up and squishes it all over his own face. My heart breaks for him again.

Aths 6/06/2010 8:22 PM  

I didn't read your spoiler paragraphs, but the rest of it speaks volumes about this book. I bought it last month, but am yet to read it. Now I'm more eager than ever to read it.

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