Do I really have to read The Kite Runner? That was the question asked in the Slate offices this spring when the debut novel by Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The novel seemed eminently worthy, after all—not only the first one written in English by an Afghan, but chock-full of “eye-opening information about the turmoil in modern-day Afghanistan,” as one reader put it. The Kite Runner has sold an astonishing 1.25 million copies in paperback, driven by word-of-mouth at a moment when sales of fiction are reportedly at a low. Scores of municipalities selected it for their Community Reads programs, citing its “universal” themes. Laura Bush called it “really great.” As the months have passed, America has only grown more passionate about its merits. So here’s the mystery: Why have Americans, who traditionally avoid foreign literature like the plague, made The Kite Runner into a cultural touchstone? What version of life abroad is it that seems so palatable and approachable to us? Why The Kite Runner and not any of the other books about Afghanistan that have recently hit the shelves?
The initial interest in the book clearly lay in the promise that it might deliver topical information in an accessible manner—humanizing the newspaper accounts of a place that suddenly became a U.S. preoccupation again after 9/11. This it does. Spanning nearly 30 years, The Kite Runner loosely fills in most of the relevant facts about Afghanistan’s turbulent recent history—the 1978 civil war, the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban opposition, the tension between the Pashtuns and the Shiite Hazara minority—and fleshes out the cartoonish picture many Americans have of Afghanistan as a culture of warlords and cave hideouts. Its utilitarian prose animates a moment when Kabul was a lively city where schoolboys recited Sufi poetry and secular businessmen thrived. It makes use of journalistic detail to convey atmosphere: a man sells his artificial limb on a street corner, children fight kites every winter. And it offers up a lively and well-observed section about Afghani expatriates setting up flea markets in Fremont, Calif. Throughout, it translates key phrases and presents information with the diligence of a Frommer’s travel guide: “If the story had been about anyone else,” the narrator tells us, recalling a tale about his father wrestling black bears, “it would have been dismissed as laaf, that Afghan tendency to exaggerate—sadly, almost a national affliction.” There is rarely any danger that the reader will find herself confused. Consider the moment when the first guns of the civil war go off: ” ‘Well,’ I began. But I never got to finish that sentence. Because suddenly Afghanistan changed forever.”
If The Kite Runner’s early adopters picked up the book to learn something about Afghanistan, what kept them reading (and recommending it) is the appealingly familiar story at the heart of the novel: a struggle of personal recovery and unconditional love, couched in redemptive language immediately legible to Americans. The Kite Runner tells the story Amir and Hassan, two childhood best friends in Kabul, divided by class and ethnicity. Amir is a wealthy Pashtun, and Hassan, his servant, is a Hazara. Hassan is a child of preternatural goodness and self-confidence, though he is illiterate and often picked on by roving Pashtun boys, in particular a “sociopath” named Assef. Amir, whose mother died in childbirth, is an outsider ill-at-ease with himself. He is debilitatingly hungry for the love of his father, Baba, a wealthy businessman who is puzzled that his son prefers reading to watching soccer. The studiously symmetrical plot revolves around an act of childhood cowardice and cruelty that Amir—the narrator—must make amends for years later, after he and Baba have emigrated to America. “There is a way to be good again,” a friend counsels him. It’s clearly such messages of redemption that prompted one Amazon reviewer to observe that The Kite Runner “remind[s] us that we are all human alike, fighting similar daily and lifelong battles, just in different circumstances.”
The problem is that this last qualifying phrase, “just in different circumstances,” underscores how uneasily the two different aspects of the book—the journalistic travel guide approach and the language of redemption—rub against each other. This is a novel simultaneously striving to deliver a large-scale informative portrait and to stage a small-scale redemptive drama, but its therapeutic allegory of recovery can only undermine its realist ambitions. People experience their lives against the backdrop of their culture, and while Hosseini wisely steers clear of merely exoticizing Afghanistan as a monolithically foreign place, he does so much work to make his novel emotionally accessible to the American reader that there is almost no room, in the end, for us to consider for long what might differentiate Afghans and Americans.
The tidy “I’m being healed” trajectory that animates Amir’s narrative is derived from a vocabulary of psychotherapeutic spiritual recovery that looks pretty threadbare when the predicament is the much messier one of a nation ravaged by political and religious war. This is hardly a book that whitewashes violence (several young boys are raped, and a woman is stoned to death), but the silver-screen melodrama of its central story line wishfully cuts against the fact-based horrors depicted within. Near the end of the book, Amir tries to make amends for his old act of betrayal by saving Hassan’s orphaned son from a Talib warlord who has kidnapped him, and who is portrayed as a bloodthirsty would-be Hitler. The warlord turns out to be Assef—the childhood nemesis who had tormented Hassan. When Assef rhapsodizes about taking the “garbage” out of Afghanistan—a reference to the slaughter of Hazaras by the Taliban—Amir challenges him with a note so smugly struck it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, even though we agree with his disgust: “In the west, they have an expression for that,” I said. “They call it ethnic cleansing.” The Hollywood elements of his story conduce to a view of Afghanistan and its dilemmas that is in the end more riddled with facile moralizing than even the author may realize.
Because The Kite Runner’s didactic lessons are the precise sort we are hungry to hear (redemption is possible, Western values are exportable, and so forth), it is worth being alert to what’s missing from the novel, which is much exploration of the subtleties of assumptions that do divide people. “I started the book wondering if there were going to be a lot of differences between my perspective as a liberal Christian and a Muslim perspective,” one book-club reader told her local newspaper. “I found that there’s a lot in common. Amir comes to a point when he is desperate, he reaches to God. To me, that’s the way people within Christianity are.” Study the 631 Amazon reviews and scores of newspaper features about The Kite Runner, and you’ll find that most fail to mention that the narrator converts from a secular Muslim to a devoutly practicing one. Hosseini’s story indulges this readerly impulse to downplay what is hard to grasp and play up what seems familiar. In the drama of the novel, Amir’s conversion isn’t a sign of his adherence to a particular set of theological beliefs, but of a generalized spirituality reflecting his moral development over the course of the novel. As the Denver Post reviewer was all too happy to reassure readers, “This isn’t a ‘foreign’ book. Unlike Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, Hosseini’s narrative resonates with familiar rhythms and accessible ideas.”
One shouldn’t underrate the complexity of the task facing Hosseini, who understandably wanted to make the human predicament at the core of his novel seem universal, not remote. There’s something to be said for The Kite Runner’s strategy. This is a book you would never accuse of succumbing to the Orientalist fallacy—the West’s tendency, as Edward Said has argued, to see Islamic society as fundamentally other (and implicitly inferior) to Western culture, and the embodiment of an exotic “Oriental” mind. Members of the Afghan community in America have praised The Kite Runner for its verisimilitude. (One mention of the novel on an Afghan discussion forum quickly led to a lively debate about Afghanistan’s best kite fighters.)
But surely there is a middle ground. In Imaginary Homelands, a collection of essays, Salman Rushdie argues that the expatriate writer’s vision of his homeland is necessarily suspect and that all novels of exile are a type of “broken mirror,” complicated by nostalgia and wishfulness. He goes on to suggest that the exiled writer’s duty is to be self-conscious about the ways his story is a partial one. Such a provisional, highly fictionalized vision, Rushdie argues, is paradoxically more accurate than any account that earnestly purports to capture an objective or “informative” depiction of national character or culture. Hosseini could benefit from a little more of this line of thinking. At the time of writing, he hadn’t been to Afghanistan in 26 years, but he told one newspaper, “I tried to make a statement larger than what was going on in the book. What happened after the Soviet war is that the world just kind of packed its bags and went home and watched as the Afghans were brutalized.” The Kite Runner may offer an unsparing portrait of ravage and despair. But it purveys an allegory of redemption and healing that, despite the seemingly unmediated realism of the atrocities it describes, is far too neatly reflected in the novel’s tidy mirror.