I want to tear myself from this place, from this reality, rise up like a cloud and float away, melt into this humid summer night and dissolve somewhere far, over the hills. But I am here, my legs blocks of concrete, my lungs empty of air, my throat burning. There will be no floating away. There will be no other reality tonight.
--The Kite Runner, page 345
Three summers ago, I spent several weeks absorbing the lyrical prose, profound imagery, and touching characterizations contained within Anna Karenina. This Tolstoy novel remains one of my favorite books, and I've rarely encountered a reading experience that comes close to rivaling it; usually, only "classics" can tempt me to question Anna Karenina's place on my list. However, Khaled Hosseini, with his first novel (published in 2003), has provided such a spellbinding and heartbreaking work of art and shifted the balance of my "favorite books" hierarchy. Its contemporary setting and concerns mesh seamlessly with universal emotions, hopes, and fears. This novel is at once timely and timeless. It is at once devastating and healing.
The Kite Runner is narrated by Amir, who opens the novel by saying: "I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975." This single sentence is the launching point for the rest of the novel because everything -- literally, everything -- that Amir holds important in his life can be traced in some way to that fateful watershed moment. "Today" refers to December 2001, the time frame in which Amir begins his narrative. Thus, after the brief opening chapter, Amir dives into the past and takes the reader on a journey through his childhood, young adulthood, and ultimately the birth of his manhood. This is a tale of memories carefully woven together, of traumas and miracles and tragedies and moments of triumph. This is a tale of guilt born from a buried past; it is a tale of the hope -- however miniscule -- for a redeeming peace.
Even before the winter of 1975, Amir's childhood is far from perfect. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father, Baba, never seems to offer the unflinching love and approval that young Amir craves. Baba is a tall, imposing figure whose intimidating personality and stature command both his household and the family's neighborhood in Kabul. He is well-known, well-respected, and well-feared. Amir, by contrast, is unathletic, timid, and nonconfrontational. Instead of playing sports, he reads books and writes stories of his own. His friend, Hassan, stands up for him in fights with other boys, to the chagrin of Baba.
Hassan, roughly Amir's age, is the son of Baba's servant, Ali. Ali and Hassan have lived in a servant's hut on Baba's property for as long as Amir can remember. Despite the contrast between living conditions (Baba's house is regal), Hassan and Amir are steady companions. However, their differences go beyond economic; Hassan is a Hazara, an ethnic minority shunned and abused within society. Thus, perhaps for this reason (he never fully explicates why), Amir does not refer to Hassan as his "friend" even though he spends all of his free time with him, climbing trees and running through the streets. Hassan, loyal to the core, never seems to mind. The boys' favorite activity is "kite running," a Kabul tradition that involves the flying and "cutting down" of multiple opponents' kites until only one kite remains in the sky. The most talented kite runners chase after the fallen kites, fighting to the finish for the coveted prizes. Of this game, Hassan and Amir are masters. It is the element of their childhoods which they hold most dear, and crucially, they share it together.
However, the winter of 1975 comes along, and Amir is determined to win the yearly kite running competition. He feels that such a feat would finally make his father proud and finally allow him to be seen as a worthy son, a strong young man. All of his energy is focused on this competition; he cannot sleep the night before. The competition proves fortunate for Amir; after hours of battling kites in the sky, Amir finds himself among the final two fliers still standing. Loyal Hassan pledges to run the final kite, and when Amir cuts the last opponent's kite down, leaving only his victorious in the sky, Hassan keeps his promise. Off he runs to capture that kite for Amir. However, when Hassan returns with the kite, and when Amir returns to a proud Baba, everything has been irrevocably changed. One day -- one incident -- is all it takes to shatter Amir's world and leave the twelve-year old reeling, struggling, grasping for any fragments of the life he formerly knew. His decisions that winter have far-reaching consequences, ones which he never could have forseen but which later torment his heart and mind.
Indeed, Amir's battles can be seen as a microcosm of Afghanistan at large. As Amir grows up, his native country is ravaged by the Soviets, internal factions, religious extremism, and every conceivable form of violence. Amir and Baba flee to America in 1981 to start a new life there, free from the instability and danger of their homeland. But even here, in the land of opportunity, Amir cannot find peace. Likewise, Afghanistan is torn apart, its prior beauty destroyed at the hands of captors and power-hungry tyrants. As the 1980s and 1990s progress, these battles rage on, and Amir's fiercest battle is within his own heart and his own conscience. The winter of 1975, and the secrets he holds from that time, gnaw at him and refuse to go away. Finally, a phone call from an old friend forces Amir to face his past, fight a battle he never could have imagined, and either reject or embrace his one chance for redemption.
Throughout the novel, we see the raw pain of reality; we see a nation cruelly dissembled and a man equally torn apart. These realities seem inescapable both for the people of Afghanistan and for Amir. The quote that I selected above, one of my favorites from the text, depicts the bleak sense of resignation that reality can impose upon our lives. But Hosseini offers the hope that perhaps we can be saved; perhaps we can transcend the ugliest, vilest, and most despicable of realities. If this is to be done, though, we must first battle our fears, our insecurities, and the ghosts we carry from the past. We must find faith, whether in God, our loved ones, or our promises. Only then can we hope to walk, even run, forward without the burden of history on our shoulders and within our souls.