Friday, January 22, 2016

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini : A Review


BOOK TITLE: The Kite Runner

AUTHOR: Khaled Hosseini

ISBN/ASIN: 978-1594631931, 9781594480003

GENRE: Fiction / Asian American

NUMBER OF PAGES: 400

FORMAT: Digital

SERIES / STANDALONE: Standalone.

SUMMARY:

“It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime." 
Amir is the son of a wealthy Kabul merchant, a member of the ruling caste of Pashtuns. Hassan, his servant and constant companion, is a Hazara, a despised and impoverished caste. Their uncommon bond is torn by Amir's choice to abandon his friend amidst the increasing ethnic, religious, and political tensions of the dying years of the Afghan monarchy, wrenching them far apart. But so strong is the bond between the two boys that Amir journeys back to a distant world, to try to right past wrongs against the only true friend he ever had. The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, 

The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies. A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.


FIRST IMPRESSION:

A book that has too many 'first impressions'. I have been meaning to read this for so long now that I have forgotten what was actually the very first memory I had of hearing about it. Everything is so glazed. 

But when I began reading this book, I did so with a single minded concentration, not minding the discomfort I felt or the curious stares I got, my eyes glued to my mobile screen. Of the umpteen reasons why I put off reading this book, not having it in paperback was one of the top five. But finally, a right motivation made me read the book, and once I started, as they say, there was no looking back, or up, or to the sides, for that matter.

REVIEW:

The Kite Runner. I have heard of Kite flyer, kite maker and a few other words denoting professions related to making and flying a kite. But Kite Runner was a new term, as I would learn when I read the book, used for people who caught the kite that was cut off in a competition. The title was not actually what made me pick this book up. It was the praise it got, the critics who raved about it and the people who told me I hadn't read proper modern literature until I had read Hosseini. Many taunts and shocking exclamations later, here I am, writing a review for one of the most talked about books in the last decade.

As with many other books that came with their fair share of warnings and tips for recovery, this book dampened my excitement every time I began to read it in the past. The mere reaction I saw fellow book lovers having made me shy away from the paperback that seemed to traumatise everyone who read it. In the end though, curiosity won over discomfort. What followed next is one of the most concentrated spells of reading I have ever had in recent times. (Well, having a deadline helped, but it was mostly because of captivating writing and the urge to see if the book was worth all the hype surrounding it).

The Kite Runner is not a book that would easily let you forget what it told you. It is one of those rare books that will leave you thinking about the dialogues and certain descriptions long after you have read the last page. It is one of those books that will make you see the world around with certain aloofness that comes only when the heart has been affected. It is a book that will make you look at stories of refugees (something you merely looked at with pity and probably a sense of righteous outrage till then) with a mixed sense of horror and deep seated sadness. The book is one of those that seems so realistic that you begin to believe it is not real. At all.

The book, its plot, the character sketches have been discussed enough, with reactions varying from utmost disgust and shock at the story to religious, fanatic devotion to the story and the writer. It does help that Hosseini is an outsider from inside Afghanistan. The reader gets a misplaced sense of having read a firsthand account, or at least one that is based on so many facts that it has to be true. For after all, while happiness could be fabricated, sadness seldom is. The Kite Runner is right on so many levels. But it is wrong on so many more levels.

Reading the story of two little boys Amir and Hassan, and how their lives are changed one fateful winter night, one cannot but help feel the author has decided to write a tale so moving, so filled with sadness and the bitter bile of regret and redemption that you could almost realise from page one that Amir was going to make a few mistakes - mistakes for which he will spend the rest of his life repenting. After all, a happy tale would be one where Amir makes one mistake, realises his folly and does everything right after that. But no. This is poignant, a tale of how one man can never change the characteristics he had since birth, and how his childhood and upbringing affect the type of man he has grown up to be.

The story, as everyone might know by now, follows the line of the summary. But the effect the author intended it to have might have been a hit or a miss. Some people fell for it, some didn't. I don't belong to either category. Having had too much of preparation, I have to agree that I expected the worst and ended up being, in fact, pleasantly surprised at places. Maybe the reason why I did not shed a few tears while I actually read the book was because I had already shed many when I was being told off for not reading it and feeling bad that I was, indeed, missing a classic. That being said, I am immensely grateful for everyone who insisted I read this book. Thanks to you, I can finally say I have read a good book.

What worked for me was the writing. The sway the author held over his readers and the power his words had. There are a few powerful quotes and lines I would take back with me for a long time to come, and certain things I wouldn't forget. Ever. But what did not work for me is the story itself. While the writing made an ordinary story extraordinary, the same writing was what made me despise the character who was supposed to be searching for redemption. While I certainly do understand the reasons why Amir became who he was, I would never accept or agree with him as a person. The power of the author was in making me abhor his lead character in such a way I had not even hated the famous super villains. Amir as a child, and later on as a man, even when he grows up and repents and feels deep remorse, did not strike me as a basically good man. Amir had a troubled childhood, a childhood he had troubled for himself. Children who have had it worse have turned out better.

This book has the curious distinction of being one that made me hate the story as much as I loved the writing. Maybe I was too uncomfortable to stomach the harsh realities, or maybe this book shattered some beliefs I had on the innocence of childhood, or maybe because after all, this is a story that made the reader cry, and strongly dislike a few characters, one of which (for me at least) happens to be the narrator, Amir. While I loved Hassan and his bordering-on-dubiously-unrealistic goodness, his father Ali, whom he obviously took after, the earth shattering secret that Baba jan (Amir's father, an upper class elite) harbored, and of course, Rahim Khan, who, of all the characters in the book, was one person who showed just how important it was to offer little children timely encouragement that did not border on mindless devotion, and still manage to correct them with a gentle nudge here and a firm prod there.

I really love the book for making me so involved with the characters that I talk about them in such great detail. Love or hate felt towards a character with such great intensity is the author's victory. One of the aspects about this story that seemed too harsh and too real was the fact that it showed, clearly, that caste based prejudices need not exist only in evil people. It might crop up even in those whose upbringing is normal and considered open minded. It is true that I hated Amir ever since he escaped the bullies by saying Hassan was not his friend but merely a servant (and in turn getting his life out of the gutter by timely intervention by the said Hassan, and not even bothering to thank him for it and instead running away whenever he realised that Hassan was 'so true that anyone who was around him felt phony'). But I did realise that Amir was not one man but a representation of many men and women today.

I am going to recount here a few words that I would remember forever. These are the words that I take back from the book, words that made me realise, no matter how much I hated what I feel is a single minded, focused, horrific portrayal of humanity's darkest emotions in a story, the book in itself was so good it almost prevented me from reading another one soon. Almost.

One of the first quotes that impressed me. 

"Children aren't coloring books. You don't get to colour them with your favorite colors."

The quote that made me pick the book up and read it, finally. And something I agree with - an over simplified, yet eerily true definition of sin.

"There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft... When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steam someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. Do you see?"

The following paraphrase from the book is one that gave me the chills, almost as if I knew something horrible was about to happen - something that would change the story - the turning point if you will. There was no thrilling background music, no need for any other visual effects. Just the words that give a strange sense of foreboding.

The old man sits against a mud wall. His sightless eyes are like molten silver embedded in deep, twin craters [...]

He takes Hassan's hand first, strokes the palm with one hornlike fingernail, round and round, round and round. The finger then floats to Hassan's face and makes a dry, scratch sound as it slowly traces the curve of his cheeks, the outline of his ears. The calloused pads of his fingers brush against Hassan's yes. The hand stops there. Lingers. A shadow passes across the old man's face. Hassan and I exchange a glance. The old man takes Hassan's hand and puts the rupia back in Hassan's palm.

These words that reflected what every man who has faced the war actually feels against those he considers had turned their back to their nation at the time of need and moved west in search of greener pastures.

This is the first time you've ever worn a pakol. That's the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That's the Afghanistan I know. You? You've always been a tourist here, you just didn't know it." [...] Rahim Khan had warned me not to expect a warm welcome in Afghanistan from those who had stayed behind and fought the wars.

This cherophobic paragraph that hits too close for comfort.

"She said, 'I'm so afraid'. And I said, 'Why?", and she said, 'Because I'm so profoundly happy, Dr. Rasul. Happiness like this is frightening.' I asked her why and she said, 'They only let you be this happy if they're preparing to take something from you,' and I said, 'Hush up, now. Enough of this silliness.'"

And a few other gems like these:

"But I hope you will heed this: A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer. I hope your suffering comes to an end with this journey to Afghanistan."

"It would be erroneous to say Sohrab was quiet. Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the VOLUME knob on life.
Silence is pushing the OFF button. Shutting it down. All of it."

To sum up my totally contradictory views about the book : It is something that I would ask others to read. Not because they should learn the story, but because they can realise just how violently a book could make one react. To show them the power words have to hurt, to scar and to heal. I would never agree with the storyline that says Amir is in search of redemption, for my dislike towards him is so intense that no matter what he does or says, fact remains that repeated mistakes from his end only made things worse for him and those around him. As a solace, the author himself ends the story thus, summing up my feelings about Amir and the story as is. (The reaction was from Hassan's son - a little boy whose timely intervention saved Amir's life much as his father's had done).

"It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn't make everything all right. It didn't make anything all right."

Do I recommend this book? Yes, if you are prepared to have your mind totally messed up with a shocking reality that you would find hard to come to terms with. Do I give you a fair warning? Oh yes, like thousands before me would probably have done - this thing should come with a statutory warning: 'Not for the weak hearted, fun loving people'.

And the ultimate question - have I done justice to this book in this review? Probably not. But this review is a reflection of the book itself. It is one that you might strongly agree or disagree with. This is just my opinion on an universally acclaimed book. A book that I am grateful I read, but a story I would rather forget.


WHAT I LIKED:
  • Hassan - and the decisions he took and maturity he showed all through the story - I loved this kid ever since he asked why people did not cut onions rather than kill people they love (and then cry over it) if they wanted their eyes to have tears.
  • The writing - so descriptive and powerful
  • The book itself - for living up to the hype that still surrounds it, more than a decade since it was first released


WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER:
  • Amir - I sincerely wish his path to redemption was at least an honest attempt not focusing on any of his selfish, misguided sense of righteousness.
  • The portrayal of Afghanistan - for someone who was an insider, I expected the author to bring out the beauty and the truly enthralling landscape that the country must have once been, before human ego and warfare destroyed it. If the people of the nation would not sing its beauty, which outsider will?
  • The overall tone of the book - in managing to have not one light moment and veering stiffly towards the well defined borders of black and gray and an underlying, shocking sadistic reality it so effortlessly talks about.


VERDICT:

There is no 'verdict'. This book lives up to its name - a name you should be wary of. Read this at your own risk.

P.S. If you have really patiently come so far down after the rambling review - this book really is a good read - not for the story but for the writing. It is not exceptional, but it has a strange, sometimes shocking but nevertheless memorable writing.

In one sentence. This book is terrifyingly beautiful.

RATING: 4.0/5


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. In 1970 Hosseini and his family moved to Iran where his father worked for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Tehran. In 1973 Hosseini's family returned to Kabul, and Hosseini's youngest brother was born in July of that year.

In 1976, when Hosseini was 11 years old, Hosseini's father obtained a job in Paris, France, and moved the family there. They were unable to return to Afghanistan because of the Saur Revolution in which the PDPA communist party seized power through a bloody coup in April 1978. Instead, a year after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1980 they sought political asylum in the United States and made their residence in San Jose, California.

Hosseini graduated from Independence High School in San Jose in 1984 and enrolled at Santa Clara University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1988. The following year, he entered the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. in 1993. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in 1996. He practiced medicine for over ten years, until a year and a half after the release of The Kite Runner.

Hosseini is currently a Goodwill Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He has been working to provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan through the Khaled Hosseini Foundation. The concept for the foundation was inspired by the trip to Afghanistan that Hosseini made in 2007 with UNHCR.

He lives in Northern California with his wife, Roya, and their two children (Harris and Farah).

EDITIONS AVAILABLE: Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback, Audio book

BOOK LINKS: Amazon

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