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.