“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”
So begins the first novel by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner (2003) follows the story of two boys in Afghanistan before the country fell apart. One builds a new life in America, the other stays behind. Literary to the bone, the Kite Runner spans thirty years and takes place in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the USA. It is a harrowing tale of friendship, coming-of-age, betrayal, lost innocence, fatherhood, and redemption. Evil and cowardice play no small part.
Narrator Amir lives with his father Baba, a noble and well-connected businessman, their servant Ali and his son Hassan. Amir yearns for his father’s approval and will do anything to earn it. Like most Afghans, Amir is a Pashtun but harelipped Hassan, his best friend, is a Shia Hazara, an oppressed minority. This embarrasses Amir and he downplays their friendship in front of his Pashtun friends. Amir is better educated and more creative than Hassan, ‘the harelipped kite runner’ but lacks his resolve and strength of character. The distinction defines the story’s course.
The early chapters embellish the innocence of Amir and Hassan’s childhood, in the lost world of a peaceful Afghanistan. Internal events mirror the external forces that shatter their lives forever. A coup topples the monarchy, communists seize power, the Soviets invade and the country plunges into war. When the Taliban take over they ban kites from the skies of Afghanistan. By 2001, the Kabul Amir knew is a relic of history.
The Kite Runner is semi-autobiographical. Like Amir, Hosseini (right) grew up in Kabul and moved to California at 15. Amir is a writer too, which explains his well-crafted prose. Hassan is loosely inspired by a Hazara servant Hosseini once knew but his story and relationship with Amir are fictional. The Kite Runner embodies the survivor’s guilt Hosseini felt when he visited his home country in 2001, a few months before 9/11. He felt like a tourist in his own country.
A film adaptation was made in 2007, which I have not seen.
Khaled Hosseini came to the USA as an asylum seeker. He studied medicine at Santa Clara University and wrote the Kite Runner while working as a doctor. For 18 months, he rose every morning at 5 to write. The Kite Runner’s success allowed him to write full time. Hosseini has since published two other novels, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ (2006) and ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ (2013). Like the Kite Runner, both are set in Afghanistan.
Gripping, heartbreaking and full of evocative imagery, the Kite Runner is utterly deserving of its bestseller status.