11 July 2007

The Kite Runner

Flights of fancy

Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published in: 2003
Pages: 324
Genre: Fiction

It's not difficult to see why this Hosseni book is such a monster hit all over. The Kite Runner reads almost entirely like a Bollywood potboiler, with its thrill-a-minite twists & turns and emotional dramebaazi.

In any case, given that Hindi cinema is hugely popular in Afghanistan (the place Hosseni lived in and has written about in this book), it’s almost certain that the author's sensibilities have been greatly shaped by them.

But the above feeling gets overwhelming only somewhere in the middle of the novel. Its 100 pages or so, are sheer magic. No doubt even these are parts 'set up' to garner an emotional response, but Hosseni still manages to weave in a rivetting, emotionally charged narrative.

From a critical standpoint, The Kite Runner's merit lies in the fact that it offers a glympse into 1970s Afghanistan, an age and milue that not too many may be acquainted with.

The story is about the 8-year-old Amir (who serves as the author’s alter ego) and his loving servant-friend Hassan. Their childhood appears a picture of bliss, though Hosseini constantly draws our attention to the fixed power equation between the two. While Amir is the son of a wealthy businessman, Hassan is not only poor but also cursed to be born as a Hazara (Shi’a Muslim) in a place where the community is constantly taunted and ill-treated.

Amir’s father, a generous but emotionally withdrawn man, treats Hassan with unusual kindness. The latter, in turn, shows undying devotion and love to his little master (Amir).

The author, who quite obviously, has a penchant for irony as a literary device (and he even mentions this through
one of his characters), uses it excessively all over the place. Here, he employs it to bring out the slightly perverted streak in Amir’s character.

Amir knows Hassan’s unstinted love for him and hence loves to tease him.

'Would I ever lie to you Amir agha?’
Suddenly, I decided to toy with him a little. ‘I don’t know. Would you?’
‘I’d sooner eat dirt,” he said with a look of indignation.
‘Really? You’d do that?”
He threw a puzzled look. “Do what?”
“Eat dirt if I told you to.” I said…..
“If you asked, I would,” he finally said, looking right at me. To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say.

But a great act of betrayal from Amir changes their lives forever. Hassan is brutally raped by a bunch of bullies but Amir is too scared to launch an attack and just helplessly watches on.
The guilt kills Amir slowly and it pushes him further and further into an abyss. The fact that he didn’t stand up for Hassan in his desperate hour of need fills his heart with remorse.

What starts on such a promissing premise simply spirals downwards once Amir and his father flee to America. I didn’t care too much about the dozen pages dedicated to explaining Baba’s illness or even Amir’s marriage to Saroya.

In all this, the reader misses Hassan immensely. But the author has other ideas. When Amir comes to Peshawar, at the request of his mentor-friend Rahim Khan, he comes to understand truths that both shock and unsettle him.
From here on, the novel is so tastelessly manipulative that its plot points will seem jarring even to the most charitable and indiscriminate of readers.

Hosseni's intent is only to bring redemption to his protagonist and in this blinkered approach, he mangles the story to such an incredible degree that it rings a totally false note. Moreover, his attempt at irony is so literal and the effort is so obvious, it fails to move you. As a saving grace at least, I was desperately hoping he wouldn't employ the ending that he does.

Also, his craft has its share of problems – Hoseni's writing lacks subtely and he ends up spelling out things that should really just be a whiff of suggestion.


Ultimately, I’ll say this is a commendable novel for its first 100 pages, parts which have tremendous emotional power. The rest of it is trashy, though still a page turner, in a low-brow sort of way.

But coming back to its huge popularity, the driving force behind the success of such works is the accessibility they offer for the non-serious reader, in terms of it being an easy read.

If only Kite Runner's bestseller status is not used to overemphasise its critical merit, I'm willing to give it credit for one thing --- even the most apathetic of readers have actually cared to read this one!

Sandhya Iyer


janaki said...

i loved the book. Initially, i thought it was depressing.... but it turned out very hopeful and positive in the end. Must read his new one ... thousand splendid suns.

sandy said...

Hey Janaki, couldn't meet you this Sunday, as Dibya said he would be coming instead. Ultimately, he didn't. Will see you this week (with the promissed cake):-)

Yes, this is a good book overall...enjoyed it a lot.

Abzee said...

Hey Sandy,

I hope you don't mind me commenting on your blog. I remember having heard a lot about The Kite Runner and then feeling kinda underwhelmed when I finally got to it. The fact that Hosseini chooses to make Amir the central protagonist and not Hassan, sadly also shows his disguised intention of pleasing the American market. No wonder then that this book is being adapted into a movie by Hollywood. After all, what Bush-fearing American wouldn't mind a little pill of ugly Taliban, inhospitable Asia and a promised land in America!

sandy said...

Abzee: Why would I mind if you wrote? You’re most welcome.

As I said, I liked the first 100 pages a lot and then it just went awry. So underwhelmed is the right word.

As for your point on the politics of it, I'm not sure if Hassan should have been the protagonist because that would have killed some the innocence in his character, no?

But in any case, this novel actually got a chance at getting published only because of the 9/11 tragedy. Suddenly, there was this huge curiosity about Afghanistan, a country which many Americans didn't even know existed! I think that's when this novel was planned, so there's no question it was being written keeping a market in mind.

Nothing wrong with that, expect that I felt the author sensationalised the story too much and killed its essence in the end.

Qalandar said...

From what I have heard and read about Hosseini's second novel, that seems more like a book designed with a Western audience in mind. Maybe I am being too churlish...

I liked The Kite Runner quite a bit, but like sandy I didn't think anything matched the first 100 or so pages...I didn't mind the fact that Amir was the "hero", except that he wasn't as interesting a character to me as Hassan...

Qalandar said...

Over all though, there is a certain plain elegance to his writing style that is quite affecting...

sandy: you read more books in a short amount of time than satyam watches films!

Sashwati said...

Hey Sandy,

By far one of your better reviews. Haven't yet laid my hands on this one, but have read The thousand splendid suns.

Having heard so much about Khaled Hosseini, I was expecting a masterstroke with this book. Sadly, that never happend as the book touched me in bits and parts.

Again, a few relationships were hauntingly explored while the most integral one fall flat. The ending too seemed a bit hurried, something akin to The Kite Runner, from what I gather from the reviews.

Anyways, more when you do the actual review on that.

sandy said...

Sash: I've heard exactly the same thing about Thousand Splendid Suns, so not surprised with your views at all. And that's one of the reasons why I haven't cared to read this book yet...
Even Kite Runner, while wonderful in some parts, turned out looking like a Bollywood potboiler in the end. No wonder, this is actually being cinematically adapted by Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

Why did you all choose to read it

Anonymous said...

It's a fantastic read and an overwhelmingly informing novel. It introduces the true Afghan culture and slaps America in the face with the truth of its horrors and allows the reader time to reflect on even Western morals. Its themes of loyalty, redemption, and standard on pride and countrymen drew me to the novel; but the eccentric tone and amazing story-line (with its surplus of round characters) kept me flipping the pages! I'm a high school student so maybe the novel was more fulfilling from my open mind. I appreciate reading the criticism, but have to disagree; I believe his "unfinished" endings reflect the ultimate truth in life, that we don't always get a happy ending with a long list of reasons telling us how it is 'happily ever after'.

Rajat said...

'The Kite Runner' dealt with the ugly facet of life which I am unwilling to accept at times. The friendship of a master and servant is portrayed so well that it touches deep inside. It was late but finally Amir fought for his friend. Simply love it!!!
Do you have 'The Fountainhead' in your library.

sandhya said...

Hi Rajat,
haven't read or reviewed The Foutainhead. Might do so sometime in the future. Thanks for visiting :-)

shreyasi said...

One of the best books I have ever read..somehow injustices done to chilhood always leave me terribly depressed but I guess all of us have our share of them and they determine our sensibilities in adulthood.