Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Kite Runner

I recently read The Kite Runner, and liked it. Besides the primary story about a pair of friends growing up in idyllic, pre-1973 Afghanistan, there is an interesting consideration of life in the Afghan neighborhood in the Bay Area, "Little Kabul" in Fremont (a town which also has a large Indian population, incidentally).

Fremont is where author Khaled Hosseini grew up after his folks left Afghanistan in 1980. It's interesting to me that in real life Hosseini is a practicing physician (age 38), while he makes the protagonist in his somewhat autobiographical book a professional writer. That Amir's father in the novel accepts his son's unconventional choice of profession without a fight -- which no South Asian parent would ever do! -- might be the only thing that really doesn't ring true for me in terms of the immigrant experience reflected in The Kite Runner.

It's hard to say exactly why The Kite Runner has become such a big hit. According to one recent USA Today article, it's sold more than 1.4 million copies and had 17 printings, which makes it a certifiable phenomenon for a first-time author in today's anemic book market. (Other tidbits: it's currently ranked #9 at Amazon, and hit #1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list this spring.) It's almost entirely a word-of-mouth phenomenon, which makes it even more impressive. Americans want to read this book -- by an unknown Afghan who happens to have a name that's not so different from "Hussein." That's something.

And most people I've talked to -- including several of my colleagues in the English department -- seem to really like the story. It clicks; it strikes a nerve; it does something. There are also doubters, such as this Slate writer, who found the book's psychological focus on redemption a little too pat -- almost programmed to appeal to western readers. (Hm, she may have a point there.)

In my view, though it's not quite a literary masterpiece, The Kite Runner does do some interesting things narratively, and is a nicely paced and carefully written story. The most intriguing element for me are the references to the 9th century Persian epic the Shahnamah (sometimes spelled Shahnameh), by the Persian writer Firdawsi.

The particular chapter of the Shahnamah that is singled out in The Kite Runner (and it has resonance in more than one way in the story, but I won't give away exactly how) is the story of Rostam and Sohrab. Rostam is a king and a brave fighter who has a rival named Sohrab. After a series of skirmishes, Rostam mortally wounds Sohrab. In the conversation the two of them have after the battle, as Sohrab is dying, it becomes clear that Sohrab is in fact Rostam's long-lost son. Here's the paragraph quoted in the novel:

If thou art indeed my father, then hast thou stained thy sword in the life-blood of thy son. And thou didst it of thine obstinancy. For I sought to turn thee unto love, and I implored of thee thy name, for I thought to behold in thee the tokens recounted of my mother. But I appealed unto thy heart in vain, and now is the time gone for meeting...

Ah yes, fathers, sons, and a scene of primeval violence. It's the kind of thing that only really happens in heatbreaking medieval epics and melodramatic Hindi films, but it gets me every time. It's important in the beginning of the novel -- as the protagonist feels neglected by his father -- and it becomes important again at the end, in an interesting way. If you don't stop to notice the connection, you might miss it.

(Incidentally, check out illustrations from different early manuscripts of the Shahnamah at the Shahnama Project at SOAS. Beautiful... And here is a translation of just the Rostam and Sohrab chapter of the Shahnamah).

The other thing I like in The Kite Runner is the way Hosseini goes easy on the ethnography. You don't hear long lectures on Burqas, or Pashtun marriage rituals, or inter-ethnic rivalries in Afghan society. There is a little on each of the above in the novel -- you might learn a couple of things about relations between Pashtuns and Hazaras -- and that's undoubtedly part of its appeal for some people. But Hosseini doesn't hit the reader over the head with it, the way Asne Seierstad does in The Bookseller of Kabul -- the "other" book on Afghanistan everyone is talking about.

(On the other hand, Seierstad's book is an explicitly feminist account of how Afghani customs are oppressive to women. This is something Hosseini's book doesn't really get into much. His next book, he says, will deal with gender issues in Afghan culture much more directly.)

Hosseini avoids excessive explanation and historical context; perhaps he realized while writing it in 2001-2002 that many readers coming to his book would already know the story of the exile of King Zahir Shah in 1973, of the Soviet invasion and the devastating civil war that followed, and the rise of the Taliban (see Wikipedia for a brief primer on modern Afghani history).

With the ethnography and historical explanation at a minimum, Hosseini is free to jump right into the story.


Blogger Laura Pyle said...

I appreciate your comments on Hosseini's light explanatory touch; now that I think about it (and I didn't before), I didn't feel lectured to, and I also had a very clear, vivid sense of the life in Afghanistan and in San Francisco described, though I have almost no applicable background.

I enjoyed The Kite Runner, at least as much as one "enjoys" a book one cries so much over, but, I think because I did cry a good deal over it, the end jarred me. The continuing tragedy began to seem stretched, and though I could imagine the writer saying, "but things like this happened, and happen," as a reader I didn't buy it, so for me the writing failed at the end. It was as if Hosseini's subject matter outran his skill, and I'm not sure I'll read his next book, because I felt betrayed by being wrenched from the story to its form.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Owen Beith said...

Thanks for the info about the Shahnama project. As you're at Lehigh maybe you get the chance to go to New York occasionally. If so, go to the Metropolitan Museum - they have some wonderful miniatures illustrating the Shahnameh on display (or did in 1990).

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

orhan pamuk's "snow" also has refers (and briefly describes) the rustam and sohrab
story as well as a reference to the shahnama (and the difficulty of finding a copy in
present day istanbul) and the waning circulation of these stories. i haven't read the
kite runner but it might be interesting to see how the hosseini and pamuk use the same
story for their own purposes

8:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was much too cinematic for me... There were moments in the reading experience where I felt, and thought, "I know what comes next..." Certain descriptions irked me, I had to roll my eyes at certain character traits... Overall, great read, but it could have used another write-through I thought.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd rate it a poor novel. The plot positively creaked, and the villain was right out of a Batman comic book. Pow! Crash! Oof!

3:34 PM  
Anonymous the king said...

long live rexdale!!!

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in my opinion.. and as i have read the book.. i would say that this is quite interesting as well as good for know what will happen next.. i dont think that this is the only book.. i have read several books in which u read the first chapter and you will know what will happen in the rest of the book...Kite Runner is a job well done.. i mean it's not easy describing a place or an event happening in Afghanistan..i loved the book and hoping for a sequel someday...(sigh)..anyways i would recommend this book to everyone who likes to read multicultural books as well as to all those who just want a good storyline... one more thing about the so called villain..i dont think that there is only on villain who is coming constantly.. u see him in the beginning as in childhood and then again at the end of the book so its not mostly all on villainry...anywayss i say a great book to read.. dont care what others say.... like it or not it was great...

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to explain that Afghan parents are not like south asian parents when it comes to what profession thier children will pursue, I dont know why you assume they would be, Afghans are more like people to thier west and north (Persians, Tajikistanis) in terms of culture, identity, race , language, etc.. rather then people to thier east like Pakistanis/Indians/other south asians.

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first 100 pages are brilliant...and then it turns into a pro-US/Israeli let's praise the bully boys and their policy of violence in the Middle East and try and justify the invasion of Afghanistan in Western eyes and complete exposure of his own buttocks to the Western shaft by Hosseini...It's being trumped up for no reason other than this...wake up and open your eyes people...

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes...the book did make me cry,it also took me to the days of "To Kill A Mockingbird".Good book!Waiting for a similar and better book from the Hosseini stable.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

agree w/ the above.

Afghans are central asian (due to their iranic/turkic heritage) rather than the Indic south asian base.

Actually, Bhutan isn't south asian as well - they're east asian.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Singh not agreeing with Hussaini's story line about an Asian father or parents would never so easily agree with their children's career path as so he calls it 'unconventional choice of profession' is completely wrong and stereotype. He's clearly not aware of other Asians cultures and mentality, other than his very own South Asian side of Asia.

Afghans may have gone through some hard times in life and they may have been portrayed it as uneducated and not open-minded citizens of the universe. But, despite going through the hardship, they are certainly without any doubt are different when it comes to their children's choice of education. They never, unlike the South Asians, as Mr Singh agrees fight for their children's choice of career. They let their children to choose a profession that they are fond of, regardless of what it is, be it a professional writer.

2:59 PM  

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