Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner

[some spoilers]

I’m not, in general, a big reader of bestseller fiction. Every now and then, though, I’ll get to feeling guilty about my snobbishness and slum it by reading something that’s sold over a million copies. Sometimes I’m even impressed.

Not so with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Hosseini’s much-discussed novel is a trite, predictable tale, which tugs at your heartstrings with all the desperation of a twelve year old boy trying (and failing) to keep his kite in the air.

As the story opens, we find ourselves in 1970’s Kabul, where the twelve-year old narrator, Amir, lives with his widowed (widowered?) father. Amir’s closest friend and body servant is Hassan, a child belonging to the minority Hazara community, who dotes upon Amir and will do anything for him. Amir, meanwhile is desperate to win the love of his father, who he feels disapproves of him (because Amir prefers poetry to football) and treats him no differently from the way he treats Hassan, who is, after all, a servant. So Amir will do anything to win his father’s love, and Hassan will do anything for Amir. Got it?

Just in case this was too revolutionary or unique a plot twist for you, Hosseini is kind enough to bring this little triangle of his to your attention umpteen times in the first fifty pages of the novel. Hardly a page or two goes by before it’s drilled into you again – Hassan is completely devoted to Amir, Amir wants to win his father’s love. Lots of dark forebodings about the evil that is going to befall Hassan as a result of this are sprinkled in for good measure.

There are two things wrong with this part of the book. First, all these repeated reminders about the basic set-up seem ham-handed – after a point you feel like screaming “okay, okay, I get it already!”. Second, while Hosseini is supposedly writing from a twelve year old’s perspective, his characters constantly sound wise beyond their years. Hosseini never really breaks out of his adult viewpoint, and as a result his narrative ends up sounding artificial and inauthentic.

Take the main denouement of this first part. No surprises here – obviously the two boys get into a jam trying to do something to impress Amir’s father, and obviously Hassan takes the fall while Amir runs away. You knew that was going to happen. But as he runs away, Amir thinks to himself – am I doing this because I’m afraid, or because I recognise that I must make a sacrifice to win my father’s love and I’m willing to use Hassan as my victim? Now, remember, this is a twelve-year old who’s just had a bad shock, who’s confused and frightened and is running away – do we really believe that he would think through this whole God-Abraham-Isaac thing in such a state? And did we really need Hosseini to spell it out for us through his twelve-year old narrator’s mouth. Weren’t the hints about Sohrab and Rustum, about how Hassan’s eyes looked like the eyes of a lamb about to be slaughtered, etc, etc. enough?

From here, the story shifts location. The second part of the book shows Amir and his father moving as refugees to the United States. This is, in my view, the best part of the book. Hosseini’s descriptions of immigrant Afghans in California work well – he creates a portrait that is at once universal and specific, and manages to combine touches of warm humour with a sense of displacement and loss, of a community stuck in a time warp and forced to live a life very different from what they were used to back home (a decorated general, for instance, ends up selling goods at a flea market).

Unfortunately, this part doesn’t last long. Just as you think Amir has settled down and will start living out his life in the US, he is summoned back to Pakistan, where an old mentor sends him off on a thinly disguised voyage of redemption into the heart of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. What follows comes straight out of a standard Hollywood pot-boiler. Amir enters Afghanistan in disguise, accompanied by a hard-nosed, battle-scarred side-kick who is initially sceptical of this soft American but eventually won over by Amir’s sincerity and courage. Together they carry out Amir’s peril-fraught mission, making a heroic (and entirely improbable) escape from the clutches of the Taliban, one of whom (surprise! surprise!) turns out to be Amir’s boyhood nemesis. But Amir’s return to grace is not yet complete. He has brought back Hassan’s son with him, a boy who looks and acts exactly like Hassan, and who therefore becomes the convenient instrument through which Amir can expiate his former sins and make good the crimes of his youth.

This entire last section is slickly, almost nauseatingly predictable, filled with pat coincidences, easy parallels and entirely illogical plot details [1]. Worse, the novel is full of the sloppiest, most appaling cliches, of scenes that seem written with an eye to selling the film rights to the book. At one point in the story, for instance, Amir and others are trying to escape Afghanistan when a Russian soldier stops the truck they’re travelling in and demands to be allowed to sleep with a woman of their party. Amir’s father, ever the hero, tells the soldier he must shoot him first. The soldier promptly raises his rifle, aims it at Amir’s father and a shot rings out. Only it isn’t the soldier threatening them who has fired! No, it’s his superior, who has come in just in time to tell the soldier off and assure the good people of Amir’s entourage that they may pass on unmolested!

You can just see the scene in the film, can’t you?

The trouble, I think, is that Hosseini, despite all the violence in his novel, is too much in love with his main characters, too hell bent on making things come out right. He wants us to sympathise with all his characters (all except the one designated ‘villain’ who is as wooden a caricature as any I’ve ever had the misfortune to read) and as a result we end up sympathising with none of them. Hassan is supposed to be the devoted friend who suffers all in silence, but he comes across as a spineless doormat who deserves to be taken advantage of. Amir is supposed to be tortured and needy, but he comes across as weak and self-obsessed. Everyone in this novel is so busy playing his or her assigned role that they never end up being people in their own right, but remain puppets for Hosseini to tell his story with.

As for Hosseini’s prose – it’s adequate enough, but hardly rises to the levels of brilliance that would be needed to lift this book out if its mediocrity. A Rushdie could have taken a story this obvious and made it sing through sheer wordplay. Hosseini has nowhere near that kind of talent.

In the end, the reason the novel doesn’t work, I think, is because Hosseini’s feel-good storyline overwhelms the anguish he is trying to portray. The pain or suffering of his main characters never seems entirely believable, partly because you can see the redemption at the end coming a mile away, and partly because Hosseini is so busy explaining to you what his characters are feeling, that you never feel the need to imagine it for yourself. By contrast, the small vignettes of life in Afghanistan he offers seem more genuine, but this only deepens the triteness and artificiality of the novel, because you have the constant sense of real suffering, real trauma flitting around the periphery of the main plot.

All in all, then, The Kite Runner is an average read – patches of excellent writing muddied by page upon page of the most sickening sentimentality. Read it if you must, but if I were you, I’d save myself the trouble and just wait for the movie to come out.

[1] Amir, for example, having been cruelly beaten by his enemy, a senior Taliban official, and having maimed him in turn, manages to walk out of a building swarming with Taliban fighters, accompanied by the boy he is rescuing, and just drive away. One wonders why the Taliban fighters (who we are told would as soon shoot you as look at you) let him get away.