Saturday, December 10, 2005

Guest Review: The Kite Runner.

The Kite Runner. NY:Penguin. ISBN 1594480001.

Guest Reviewer La Bloga's friend, Sandra Ramos O'Briant

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — David Copperfield*

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” — The Kite Runner

All the novels I’ve read this year had merit, but only one left me with a lingering feeling of nostalgia, of living through a life not my own. Only a story with sharply drawn characterizations and telling moral dilemmas can get under my skin like that. If it’s told by a youthful narrator, the spell has been cast. Yes, I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories.

In The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, a childhood betrayal shadows the narrator, Amir, into adulthood. Born into the ruling Pashtun society (Sunni), Amir’s family has long been served by a Hazara (Shia) father and son. Hassan, the son, is Amir’s primary playmate, but he also prepares his friend’s breakfast and irons his school uniform. Hassan does not attend school, nor can he read, but most of Amir’s childhood memories revolve around their play — kite flying competitions, American cowboy movies, and Amir’s reading of stories to Hassan. The setting for class and ethnic conflict is present, but Hassan’s extreme loyalty makes Amir’s betrayal all the more bitter.

The Russians enter Afghanistan, and Amir and his father lose everything in their escape to America. Only when Amir returns to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to rescue Hassan’s son, does he redeem himself in his own eyes. An old way of life is disappearing, but before it does the cruel and self-righteous will rule. Beset by demons — primarily his own cowardice — Amir confronts the half-Afghani, half-German Assef. No typical neighborhood bully, Assef’s childhood idiosyncracies included idolizing Hitler, and despising ethnic minorities like the Hazaras. Referring to Hassan he asked Amir: “How can you call him your ‘friend’?” It’s not surprising that Assef grows into a drug-addicted, hypocritical, Koran-quoting sadist and local head of the Taliban.

Oh, and he’s a pederast.

Over the top? Dickens wouldn’t have thought so. In Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes beats his woman and his dog. Our modern villains all too often are drawn in shades of gray. Hosseini’s bad guy has no such hue, and our narrator tells us so, “Assef’s blue eyes glinted with a light not entirely sane.” Not particularly beautiful or even innovative prose, but the archetype is clear . . . and chilling. Identifying with our narrator, we hate and fear Assef, and hope he will get his comeuppance. Hosseini doesn’t disappoint, but he rubs our nose in the Taliban muck before he allows our hero to escape, rescued by the child he came to save.

Some might consider this a plot contrivance, but I return again to Dickens, who wrote his serial novels to entertain. Even though his main characters are often sentimental types, his settings usually are not. This same technique works in The Kite Runner because it’s a simple story set against a complex background of Sunni and Shia, Russian invasions, Taliban takeovers, political refugees in America, and class structure in a distant, little understood region of the world.

The family loyalties epitomized between father and son, and master and servant; the internal struggle to rise above one’s own fears and petty jealousies and do the right thing; and the secular Moslems — people the average American never hears about — surrounded by superstition and a culture laden with tradition, personalize the story for us, in much the same way Dickens brought the plight of the poor and working class to readers in novels like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

Yes, the story is sentimental, and some readers — those who sharpen their teeth only on the quirky and cutting-edge — may find it old-fashioned. But a good story persists. The one aspect missing is Dickens’ humor, unless you count the fake Taliban beard Amir wears on his return to Afghanistan. Done for protective coloration, I still couldn’t shake the image of a Marx brother, probably Harpo, running amok in Kabul.

The Kite Runner was published in Summer 2003. It received good reviews upon arrival, and its popularity continues to grow, reader-to-reader, according to Hosseini’s publisher, Riverhead Books. Although Afghanistan has quieted down, we read and hear about the Sunni and Shia every day in Iraq. According to a USA Today report, some colleges have put the book on the summer reading list for incoming freshmen.

With our continued involvement in the Middle East, and our struggle to understand the people there, the author’s description of Afghan family life and values is fascinating, and introduced me to a group of people I’d like to know better.

*David Copperfield

Read my Syriana Cheat Sheet at

Sandra Ramos O'Briant

A note on this week's guest La Bloga bloguera:

Ms. O’Briant is the daughter of a Spanish Catholic and a Texan Baptist, and was introduced to both the self-flagellating Penitentes of New Mexico and the tent show holy-rollers of East Texas. In addition, her hometown of Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith, is host to state politics and the attendant corruption, artists and their hangers-on, and a thriving homosexual community.

All of this went into her first book, The Secret of Old Blood: The Sandoval Sisters. Set in the 19th and early decades of the 20th century, the issues confronted by three sisters are contemporary: racism, sexual and religious intolerance, the power of superstition, incest, reproductive freedom. Finally, it is a story of what constitutes a family, and the myths associated with the blood and bounds of loyalty.

For published credits, please visit her website.

La Bloga Blogmeister's note: La Bloga regulars happily welcome Ms. O'Briant as our guest. We welcome others with an eye and ear for literature to join us as our guest. We would love to share the pleasure of your company at La Bloga!

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