Books: The Kite Runner

I had for some time been meaning to read the novels by Khaled Hosseini, beginning with The Kite Runner, which members of my book club had highly praised. But I was hesitant to read a book described as “heart wrenching,” “devastating,” and “brutal,” even if it is also called “beautiful” and “inspiring.” I took it off the shelf in the library one day, started walking toward the check-out counter, then after a few steps returned and put it back, deciding I would wait until some time when I felt ready for that challenge.

I’m not sure just when I would have decided I was ready, but my son was assigned the novel as summer reading for his pre-AP Language and Literature class. I don’t generally read the books he is reading for school, but in this case I wanted to read it first, to know what he would be encountering in the novel and to help him deal with whatever difficult issues arose from it.

It is well-written, but I admit that I was having to push myself to read it in the early chapters. When I discovered it on CDs in the library, I decided that would be an ideal way to get through the book faster than my son would. (Not that he read it through quickly. There are so many more interesting things for a teenage boy to do during summer vacation.)

I knew from reviews I had read before purchasing the book that it contains a scene of homosexual rape, and I was not looking forward to that scene – though it was obvious from the first page when it would happen and I was sort of relieved to finally reach that point instead of continuing to anticipate it. It is awful, what happened, but at least once I had read it, I could stop worrying about how bad it would be.

I also was relieved that it is not a graphic description – in fact, my son did not recognize it for what it was at all. I had to explain later that no, Assef did not “beat up” Hassan. My son is sixteen, old enough now to learn that such things happen. But I also felt good, in a way, that such things were so outside his previous experience, even vicariously in books or movies, that the thought of such a thing did not occur to him from Hosseini’s spare description of the event.

Besides reading the book this summer, his assignment is to write about one of the characters or the major themes of the novel. He chose to write about Amir – an easy choice, in a way, since as the central character as well as the narrator we know him the best.

Yet he is a difficult character also.  My son, after reading part of the book, asked me if I thought I could have done the (bad) things Amir did. I answered that I could imagine being too afraid to defend Hassan against the bully and his companions. That is mostly a sin of omission.

But I could not see myself doing what Amir did after that, to get Hassan and his father to leave. I realize that he was tormented by guilt, and he could not bear seeing Hassan and being reminded of it. Yet the deliberate dishonesty of his ploy to force Hassan to leave is something I can’t imagine doing to someone, certainly not without admitting it to someone before long.

For me there is somewhat of a disconnect between the book up to that point and the rest of the novel. After that, Amir seems a pretty decent person, although still troubled by guilty memories, and unwilling to share that part of his past even with the woman he wants to marry.

Is it just that he has grown up? That he no longer faces the same kinds of temptation? That he is trying to make up for his past moral failings, though not knowing how to find true redemption? There is no explanation of how he got from the boy he had been to the young man he becomes.

Many of the comments I see about the novel refer to Amir as “morally ambiguous.” Unsure exactly what the term meant, I read quite a few of the discussions of this facet of the novel. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of these seem to be descriptions of school assignments for AP students to write about this, teens struggling to explain themselves, or websites offering to do students’ work for them.

One good article in this context is this discussion of moral complexity versus moral ambiguity. Based on that distinction, I see Amir as morally complex but not morally ambiguous. Amir lives in a moral universe. He would not be so guilt-ridden if he did not see his past actions as wrong. Of course, it could be that many who speak of Amir as morally ambiguous really mean morally complex. Perhaps the very term moral ambiguity has become an ambiguous in its meaning.

But this review goes so far as to say that “Fiction has few characters as utterly loathsome as Amir,” and that Hosseini manages to bring the reader to “identify with a character so despicable that they shudder to recognise their own empathy.”

I certainly did not like the way Amir acted many times, yet I did identify with him to some extent without shuddering. Jealous, unkind, cowardly, yes – but despicable? As his old friend Rahim Khan reminds him much later, as an adult, he had been a child when he did those things. That does not excuse them, but jealousy, unkindness, and cowardice are far from uncommon in children.

I vividly remember an incident from kindergarten when I was seen as unkind, though I had not meant to be. I don’t remember situations that demanded bravery, but I feared I would not be brave if such situations did arise. I did not like to take risks, and even in games I avoided conflict where possible.

I don’t remember being particularly jealous, but in part that was because I was good at a lot of things, especially academics and art, so who was I going to be jealous of? Certainly not the people whose strengths seemed to be primarily in physical looks or athletic ability, which I considered far less valuable than intellectual ability and accomplishments.

Perhaps that made me somewhat despicable. I certainly saw myself that way more as I got older, and while I was not as guilt-ridden as Amir, I felt morally inferior to most people I knew well. When I detected jealousy in myself, it was of people I admired for their ability to be so good. Somewhat for their being good at doing things, though that was part of it. But mostly at their simply being good people.

Was that part of what Amir so nasty sometimes toward Hassan? That Hassan’s goodness made him jealous, not only of Hassan getting attention from Amir’s father when Amir wanted it for himself, but of Hassan’s own good character?

The latter part of the novel is all about Amir trying to find a way “to be good again.” Perhaps that is part of the novel’s great popularity. I cannot say whether everyone feels a need “to be good again,” but I assume it is nearly universal, considering the universality of sin and the prevalence of themes of atonement and redemption in literature.

I doubt that The Kite Runner will be considered great literature decades from now. Even Hosseini says now of that novel that “if I were given a red pen now and I went back … I’d take that thing apart.”

But I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to reading more by Hosseini.

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