The Kite Runner is apparently quite a famous novel, although in my ignorance I had not heard of it before. The story follows a young man, from his teenage years in 70s Kabul just prior to the Russian invasion, though to emigration to the United States while the Russians were in town, and then back to Afghanistan in the days of the ultra-conservative Taliban rulers.
This novel is partly a sad hymn to the destruction of Afghanistan’s infrastructure and society during the decades of war since the Russians arrived. The central character Amir (and possibly the author too) laments the disappearance of the old society and describes Afghanistan under the Russians and Taliban as little more than violent anarchy.
The other aspect to the story is the personal tale of Amir himself. During the course of the story his family loses everything, and go from a comfortable existence to refugees within a few months. It is hard not to feel some sadness for the character, but he does his best to try and lose the sympathy vote. As a privileged boy his best friend Hassan is also his servant, and a member of an ethnic minority. For some reason Hassan is a very loyal friend, even though Amir exploits his position as ‘master’, doesn’t aid him when he gets into serious trouble with local lads, and eventually betrays him through jealously. Amir does have a conscience though, it would be difficult as a reader to care about him if he didn’t. He is wracked with guilt over his actions even many years later, and eventually gets an opportunity to try and make amends by returning to Afghanistan under the Taliban in the 90s and trying to find and help his old friend, who now also has a son. The last quarter or so of the novel deals with his ‘stranger-in-his-own-country’ quest.
Through my relatively liberal European eyes I felt that Amir’s nostalgia for the old society in the book was a little misplaced; his family were clearly successful because of their political support for the old regime, a regime that presided over a society that was not that much less reactionary than the one that replaced it. Misogyny, racism, nepotism, family ‘honour‘ and elitism are all elements of the childhood Amir longs for. Only by contrasting it with the excesses of the Taliban can the author conjure up an acceptance that at least the old ways were not as bad as the new. However it was interesting to see the world from a very different viewpoint, I should perhaps do it more often!
I felt the sections set in the US were a little unnecessary, and slowed the pace of the novel. Yes, it was important that Amir left his secure bubble in order to grow as a person, but the choice of the US seemed almost arbitrary, perhaps with half-an-eye on book sales. Nothing much of consequence to the overall story happens here, and they may as well not have been in the US, there is just no interaction with, or learning from, anybody who isn’t Afghani at all. It just seems to be a bit of fat added on to make a novel.
This has the kernel of a good story, and the tale of a character making a bad error but redeeming himself is a common but always satisfying one. A problem for me was accepting the character of Amir as one I should care for, partly due to his temperament and partly his attitudes. No doubt uncertainties like that are what separate a mere novel from a work of literature, but as a lay-reader it just left me with a ‘so-what?’ feeling at the end.