>Maria Elena Caballero-Robb earned her Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She works in publishing and teaches courses in U.S. literature and culture and composition. In this essay, Caballero-Robb interprets Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner as a work that intertwines the private and public realms of experience.
Maria Elena Caballero-Robb
Maria Elena Caballero-Robb earned her Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She works in publishing and teaches courses in U.S. literature and culture and composition. In this essay, Caballero-Robb interprets Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner as a work that intertwines the private and public realms of experience.
Perhaps what garnered Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, so much early praise, aside from the political relevance of its subject matter when the book was published in 2003, is its successful intertwining of the personal and the political. The novel has an ambitious agenda: to sketch the maturation of its protagonist from a callow boy beguiled by mythical stories of heroes and to portray the political situation of contemporary Afghanistan. The novel begins to show how the personal and the political affect one another through the peculiar relationship between Amir and Hassan. Indeed, James O'Brien, in his review in the Times Literary Supplement, argues, "this muddled, unbalanced and ultimately tragic relationship" between the privileged Amir and the servant Hassan "lies at the heart of The Kite Runner and echoes the betrayals and power shifts that begin to shape the country shortly after the story begins." Through the course of the novel, Amir's personal quest takes him on a decades-long journey from his birth country to the United States and finally back to his country of origin. In passing through this transforming crucible, Amir not only atones for past personal failings but also embraces a hopeful ideal of citizenship capable of upholding principles of liberty and human rights even in the face of repressive, fascist systems.
In the first several chapters, the novel's action revolves around the relationship between Amir and his friend and servant Hassan, and Amir's constant attempts to earn the respect and love of his father, Baba. Amir describes Hassan as a wise innocent, incapable of deceit, yet uncannily perceptive. Hassan's character and unschooled intelligence are apparent in his complete loyalty to Amir and his ability to perceive things about Amir that not even Amir is aware of: "Hassan couldn't read a first-grade textbook, but he could read me plenty." Indeed, critic Melissa Katsoulis points out in her review in the Times (London), "Though Hassan cannot read or write, he loves to hear Amir read aloud and is perfectly capable of pointing out the gaping hole in Amir's first attempt at plotting a story." Hassan is also admired for his physical talents—a faultless aim with a slingshot and the ability to predict where a loose kite will drift "as if he had some sort of inner compass." Baba's unusually high regard for his son's servant makes Amir, who cannot seem to please his father, jealous. When Baba pays for an operation to correct Hassan's harelip and dotes on the boy during his recovery, Amir thinks, "I wished I too had some kind of scar that would beget Baba's sympathy. It wasn't fair. Hassan hadn't done anything to earn Baba's affections; he'd just been born with that stupid harelip." Meanwhile, Amir is acutely aware that there is little understanding between himself and his father: "The least I could have done was to have had the decency to have turned out a little more like him." He senses that his father blames him for his mother's death in childbirth; and to compound matters, he overhears his father remark to Rahim Khan, "If I hadn't seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own eyes, I'd never believe he's my son."
While the dynamics of these relationships remain central to the story, in later chapters, the political events outside the limits of the family circle propel the story's action. The first hint of this transition occurs when Amir and Hassan have an encounter with a violent older boy named Assef, who wants to persecute Hassan for being a Hazara. Assef, who believes Hitler was an ideal leader, tells Amir that he is betraying his Pashtun heritage by treating a Hazara boy as his close friend. While Assef's bigotry outrages Amir, Amir is unable to think of a response. Ultimately, Hassan stands up to Assef and his lackeys; when Assef and his lackeys threaten to hurt the two younger boys, it is Hassan, not Amir, who saves them both by using his slingshot to drive the bullies away.
The boys'second encounter with Assef is much less victorious. Ironically, the encounter occurs immediately after Amir wins the kite-running tournament, which Amir believes is his chance finally to live up to his father's expectations:
There was no other viable option. I was going to win, and I was going to run that last kite. Then I'd bring it home and show it to Baba. Show him once and for all that his son was worthy. Then maybe my life as a ghost in this house would finally be over. I let myself dream: I imagined conversation and laughter over dinner instead of silence broken only by the clinking of the silverware and the occasional grunt.
The novel's frequent reference to the Afghan heroic tale, the Shahnammah, implicitly creates a comparison between Amir's relationship with his father and the larger-than-life interactions between the father-and-son warriors Rostam and Sohrab in the myth. When Amir wins the kite tournament, he begins to think of his anticipated reunion with his father in mythical terms:
In my head, I had it all planned: I'd make a grand entrance, a hero, prized trophy in my bloodied hands. Heads would turn and eyes would lock. Rostam and Sohrab sizing each other up. A dramatic moment of silence. Then the old warrior would walk to the young one, embrace him, acknowledge his worthiness.
The additional stakes of the kite tournament—the need not just to obtain the last fallen kite, but to win his father's love—compound the dilemma Amir faces when he finds Hassan being threatened by Assef and the other bullies in an alley. While Amir chooses to run, out of fear rather than to help his friend, he wonders whether he has actually sacrificed his friend for his own ends. Even as Amir sees that Hassan is in danger, he is also focused on the coveted blue kite: "Hassan was standing at the blind end of the alley in defiant stance…. Behind him, sitting on piles of scrap and rubble, was the blue kite. My key to Baba's heart." Although he is horrified at what happens to Hassan, he allows his friend to become a casualty of his quest to improve his relationship with his father. Amir's actions mirror the ethnic inequalities between Pashtuns and Hazara that are reflected in a dozen daily occurrences in the first several chapters. He uses Hassan as an instrument to achieve a desired end. Amir's failure to treat his playmate as a person marks the fatal character flaw that the adult Amir will seek to remedy.
The adult Amir moves to remedy this failure by accepting the mission to rescue Hassan's son, Sohrab, from an uncertain end. Amir redeems himself by confronting Assef and assuming responsibility for Hassan's child. The climax of the novel parallels the earlier violent crisis in which Assef rapes Hassan, but offers a victorious outcome. The battle between Amir and Assef presents Amir with the belated opportunity to fight as he believes he should have fought to save Hassan when they were children. By risking his life to save Hassan's child from a sadistic pedophile, Amir begins to atone for his earlier inhumanities.
Throughout the novel, the author uses corresponding symbols and images to emphasize the way that Amir's adult choices are belated remedies of past failures. After the climactic fight with Assef during his rescue of Sohrab, Amir is taken to a hospital in Pakistan with serious injuries. While he recovers, he discovers that his upper lip has been split clear up to the gum line, forming a harelip similar to the one Hassan was born with. Echoing an earlier scene in a hospital, in which the twelve-year-old Hassan recovers from an operation to mend his harelip, the adult Amir must wait for his own split lip to mend and quickly learns that it hurts to smile. This simultaneously reminds the reader of the moment when Amir sees Hassan smile for the last time. The reader may view Amir's injury as a moment of belated sympathy between two brothers now separated not only by geographic distance and differing fortunes, but also by death.
The novel's use of literary techniques contributes to a political statement about the relationship between individuals and systems—or the capacities of individuals to combat broad injustice in political systems. The Kite Runner turns on more than one astounding coincidence: when Amir returns to Kabul, he meets a beggar who turns out to have known Amir's mother; and, most startling, Assef, the childhood bully, turns out to be the prominent Taliban official who has kidnapped and brutalized Hassan's son Sohrab. While Rebecca Stuhr of the Library Journal finds fault with the novel's "over-reliance on coincidence," Hosseini's use of the device shows how even personal conflicts like Amir's lifelong struggle with his own guilt are intertwined with world events. This narrative twist also emphasizes the interplay between the present and the past—"the past claws its way out"—by showcasing the way that the deeds of childhood cast their shadows into adulthood. (In a similar vein, the author's use of foreshadowing sometimes signals to the reader that an imminent event will have lasting consequences, as when Amir plants money in Hassan's room in order to implicate him in a theft.)
That Amir's former nemesis turns out to be the Taliban official from whom he must rescue Sohrab lends an allegorical and mythical dimension to the battle between the two men. As a young boy, Assef is already described as "a sociopath;" an admirer of Hitler, Assef displays fascist tendencies and openly advocates removing the Hazara population from Afghanistan. Amir, on the other hand, who is by and large a good boy, is self-interested and lacks conviction. If the grown Assef appears to be a nearly cartoonish embodiment of sadism and the desire for absolute power, Amir's struggle to defeat him and save the young Sohrab appears to be an allegory for a broader struggle for Afghanistan. Whereas Amir had been able to escape the daily violence of contemporary Afghanistan as a result of his relative privilege, his Hazara friend Hassan had no choice but to raise his son among a generation of Afghan children, born into a turbulent society, who "know nothing but the sound of bombs and gunfire."
Interestingly, when Amir, a successful writer, tries to use his privilege to rescue Sohrab by offering Assef money, he is rebuffed; instead he must put his life at risk in order to complete his mission. Amir's decision to return to Afghanistan to save the son of his forsaken friend represents a choice for the exiled to return to his birth country to confront the problems that drove him away. The Kite Runner focuses more on interpersonal dramas than on political ones; it is a matter of interpretation whether Amir feels responsible for the future of his birth country in the same way that he feels accountable for his nephew's fate. Still, through Assef's embodiment of the evil of fascism and Amir's willingness to fight him for a good cause the reader is presented with a stark contrast between a theocratic regime that starves and crushes the freedoms of its people, and a reluctant but ultimately courageous citizen willing to risk his life for what he believes in.
Remarkably, the novel does not allude to the enormous controversy that accompanied the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, including the bombing of Afghanistan in retaliation for the Taliban's harboring of terrorist camps. If one can discern an author's view of politics from his fiction, Hosseini views developments in Afghan national politics of 2001 and 2002 with some optimism. In the last two chapters, the narrator speaks warmly of the ousting of the Taliban and the emergence of Hamid Karzai as the new leader of Afghanistan, and describes the hope with which the imminent Loya jirga, the exiled king's return to Afghanistan, is anticipated by Afghans and Afghan Americans alike. This optimistic attitude toward contemporaneous developments in Amir's home country parallels the novel's final flicker of hope regarding Sohrab. Afghanistan, the novel seems to argue, so recently brutalized and repressed, may yet survive.
Source: Maria Elena Caballero-Robb, Critical Essay on The Kite Runner, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.