Monday, January 21, 2008

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

This is a book that will live for ever. In it Khaled Hosseini has accomplished what many writers, most unsuccessfully, try to achieve. It’s the big stories, those turning points in history, which often attract us. They automatically have something to say, we might believe, something that needs to be aired, perhaps explained. So wars, revolutions, social upheavals, periods of turmoil, internecine struggles, ideological conflicts, all of these are the natural territory for the story teller. They are the backdrop that adds potentially unlimited drama, the context that can involve, inform and enlighten.

But often writers are not up to the task. The attraction of that big issue is greater than the powers of judgment needed to create the right balance when the smallness of the story’s detail is pitched against the vast potential dominance of its setting. The balance, therefore, is often a fine one and, because of the power of the setting, the story is often belittled or, more usually, appears merely trite against the overbearing importance and significance of the backdrop. In recent times I have read several books which have revealed the limitations of the writer’s concept by falling into one or other trap. Not so with The Kite Runner.

The plot is important, so suffice it to say that Amir and his family are in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion. Their life is described. The Kite Runner of the title is the label for the role of the kite handler’s friend, who runs to retrieve the kites that have been cut from the sky in combat. Finders are keepers and it is this booty that is mutually fought over.

With the arrival of the Russians, part of Amir’s family flees to the United States, Amir among them. He grows up there and we rejoin him years later, by which time he is well on the way to becoming a creative writer and is about to marry. But his life in the US has its imperfections, some of which are sourced in the guilt of memory. And so Amir returns to his homeland to rediscover some of those he left behind. But now it’s an Afghanistan destroyed by war and dominated by the Taliban. Amir desperately tries to uncover his past, to trace those he seeks, and he succeeds, but sometimes in ways that he least expected, ways that further complicate an already tangled tale.

As Amir’s country descends into chaos and then into new war, with the only hope apparently continued uncertainty, his personal experience becomes both painful, taxing and trying. He stumbles upon much that is unexpected, some of it perhaps not so surprising, but some of it terrifying in its threat. But, despite the suffering, there is hope, even if eventually it might arise out of the spoils of renewed conflict, perhaps just another severed kite to retrieve.

Where Khaled Hosseini succeeds in a simultaneously engaging and informative way is the blending of his drama with its context. His narrative takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery, where actions, memories, guilt are experienced at first hand, but also a journey where history unfolds in a way that includes, never merely instructs.

The Kite Runner is not a work of politics, and neither is it a history. It’s a novel, so any thought of criticism on the grounds that it lacks analysis or completeness would be misplaced. The novel does give a keen insight into the horrid and horrifying consequences of war without ever really trying to confront why it arose, or the motives of those who perpetrated the conflict. But this, again, is not in any way a criticism of what the novel achieves, merely a criticism in the literary sense, an attempt at description and contextualization of the work. If there is still anyone out there who thinks that conflict is about winning or losing, about one side fighting another until victory, then I would recommend The Kite Runner as a both essential and essentially moving experience that would both inform and educate.

View this book on amazon
The Kite Runner

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