A good book changes you for a moment. A great book changes you for a lifetime.
I’m frequently ashamed of how little I know about things. I’ve been reading for around 18 years, and I’ve been a student for about that long. Yet, despite this, I’m often to be found in the same predicament – there is too much information out there, and not enough me to go around. It’s impossible to learn it all.
My dad likes to use the phrase, “Jack of all trades; master of non,” when describing his unparalleled trivia knowledge, and I’ve always endeavored to emulate him. Therefore it should come as no surprise that I’ve grown up learning at least a small amount on a wide variety of topics (it’s great for small talk), but I’m often at a loss when I’m faced with the choice on which particular one I’d like to delve into with actual fervor. This conundrum is frustrating for someone like me, because I so desperately want to be an active participant in life. I want to see the world, experience the many cultures that inhabit it, soak in their rich histories, and do all the many interesting things there are to do. I want to learn to paint fresco art, salsa dance like a pro (or at least like no one is judging me), cook exotic dishes I’ve never even heard of yet, and learn languages that are still nothing more than mysterious scribbles for my eyes to admire. Most of all, I want to raise a family and teach my children that there is no limit to what they can do in life. So yeah, I’m a bit of a dreamer – but even I can’t imagine knowing everything or reading all of the fine literature the world has to offer. As Maud Casey said, “I was born with a reading list I will never finish.”
So, I aways get excited when I come across a book, especially if it’s a work of fiction, that shows me some piece of the world in an entirely new way. Non-fiction is great, but sometimes fiction can approach a subject and make it more real than even reality renders it. It takes a brilliant author, an entrancing story, and a rich topic; but when it all comes together fiction often feels truer than real life.
And so it is with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a book that starts in Afghanistan in the 1970s, right before the coup that ends the monarchy’s forty-year reign. This is a historical moment that is still reaping drastic ramifications today. The story might be fiction, but the major events in it are not, and from page one it’s hard to remember that the tale being told isn’t real at all, or that the narrator isn’t actually someone you could write to or meet.
It’s a very powerful book.
The actual moment of the 1973 coup is the first inkling that things are about to change in Afghanistan forever. Amir, the narrator, remarks on the fact that this was the first time he had ever heard gunshots in his city, and the modern reader in me paused a moment, having forgotten briefly (being wrapped up in the story) that this was taking place in an Afghanistan unsullied by modern warfare. I had foolishly never stopped to consider an Afghanistan not tied to the Taliban and to war. I knew about such times, yes, but I never understood them to be true in a concrete way before reading this book. I feel guilty, because I, like all other inhabitants of this world, should have understood already. I have friends from the middle east, I’ve heard stories, and I know enough muslim people to know that the bulk of Islamic believers are a peaceful and god-fearing people, defined in a major way by a minority of radicals.
But it wasn’t until Amir says, “the generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born,” that I began to truly see the full horror of what’s befallen Afghanistan and her people in the last forty years.
Those simple words packed quite the punch.
Hosseini’s prose is fire. The smallest sentence can evoke a burning passion, and his descriptions are lush with colors, smells, and voices that I feel I would recognize if I were ever to come across them in my day to day life. I’ve always had a desire to visit Afghanistan, despite the many protests from my parents, and I still very much hope to go one day. Until then, The Kite Runner gave me a piece to hold onto while I wait.
And of course, I won’t lie to you – this book is absolutely heartbreaking. From the worn melancholy that slowly creeps in from the beginning to the agonizing torture that soon follows; this is not a book for the faint of heart. It is not a beach read or a light read or any other kind of read that will leave you feeling pleasant and content about life. This is a novel to read alone, in bed, curled up in the fetal position and rocking back and forth like a crazy person.
But we’ll come back to that.
One of the many things that this book does well is divvying up beautiful doses of Afghan culture throughtout its many pages. A passage that struck me:
“The Hindi kid would soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians would eventually learn by the late 1980s: that Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules. And so it was with kite fighting. The rules were simple: No rules. Fly your kite. Cut the opponents. Good luck.”
There were many times I found myself craving a taste of “sour cherry marmalade” or naan with piping hot kabobs. I found myself longing to walk through the market squares, wear a Salwaar Kameez, and try my hand at flying a glass-tar kite.
The small moments of beauty are the only thing that get you through this book. And unfortunately, they are in short supply when contrasted with the cruelty that the pages of The Kite Runner have in abundance. Even among children the hate between the Sunni and Shi’a muslims is, at times, palpable. Even among friends the stereotypes and tension permeate the air and color the eyes. It shows the malleable nature of children, who can take to hate as easily as to love; cruelty as quickly as kindness. This is an honest story – Amir recounts it without censor, admitting his faults from the start. His friendship with Hassan, a Hazara servant that he grew up with, is always surrounded by a “I’m better than him because he’s a Hazara and a shi’a” fog. At one point he thinks to himself, “He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he?”
This question has horrifying implications.
The Kite Runner traverses almost 30 years of complex history, moving between several generations of family in the meantime. By the time it ends in early 2002, Amir and those around him have seen and experienced the unspeakable (no, don’t even try to ask, I’m not going to spoil it for you). And that’s the beauty of good historical fiction – it’s not “just a story,” or at least, not when it’s been well written, as The Kite Runner has. It resonates with readers because it could have happened. There are no elements of disbelief, no dramatic liberties taken with the real events – the horrors of war and of the Taliban are real. The loses, loves, and secrets feel real too. Similar things have happened and are happening to people every day.
This is a sad, heart-wrenching, read. I feel like I turned the pages with my heart constantly in my throat. At times it was hard to breathe, to flip form one page to the next, to force my eyes to move through the words and images presented there. I cried, I yelled, and I vowed at one point to never speak to my roommate (who recommended it) again. But the ending of the novel is hopeful. It doesn’t pretend to fix everything. Far from it, there are many things in this story that cannot be fixed. But it presents a very human ending – one that left me remembering that we, as a species, have an incredible capacity for forgiveness. Yes, we are also capable of great horrors – but for each measure of evil there is an equal opportunity for good. Our saving grace, our redemption, is our ability to love.
It’s sappy, perhaps, but I dare you to read this book and not come out of it searching desperately to something – anything – good to hold onto. If you can read this tale all the way through and then face me, look me in the eye, and tell me that it did not move you I’ll know you’re either a pathological liar or a psychopath (since this book has already moved a “sociopath” to show emotion). After all only, “a man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer.” Because when I say that I put this novel down and had to fight the urge not to buy a plane ticket to Kabul and start trying to rescue orphaned children back to America, I’m not kidding.
When I do finally visit Kabul I hope to find the city restored to some of its former glory, the people to their dignity, and the entire country to its freedom. I really wish that I could say Afghanistan is, without a doubt, headed there, but no one really knows, and if The Kite Runner taught me anything (and it taught me many things) it’s that life is volatile at best.
It’s safe to say that Khaled Hosseini has a lifelong fan in me.
To save y’all from my ramblings I’ll end with this: you have to read this book. Don’t tell me you “don’t have time” to read it.
The truth is, you don’t have time not to.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Overall Reaction: Intense crying as though a knife was being dragged across my sternum… in the best possible way!