Isabel Allende calls it an unforgettable story with all the great themes of literature and life: love, honor, guilt, fear, and redemption. Certainly, it is a powerful and moving story, and the honesty of the privileged young lead character, Amir, saves the book from being overly sentimental. It is almost a very good book, and while I will say a bit about why I think it does not quite achieve greatness, I want to concentrate mainly on how I think the novel works.
As I have said many times, there are simply too many great books in the world to spend much time either reading or commenting on the not so good ones. My primary goal is to recommend to you the very good or great reads I come across rather than to attempt to exhibit cleverness by putting books and authors down. Still, there is something troubling about this book; it is too neat, too predictable, and somehow too politically neutral. Jean Paul Sartre says that from the moment an author begins a story with “Once upon a time,” we know that we are being lied to. Life as lived, he insists, does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it does not have a point; we simply live day to day, and while the events of a life are concatenated, they do not really form a whole or have a direction. When reading this book, I felt from the beginning (and almost constantly) that I was being led to a grand finale—probably to heroic moments and resolutions. Perhaps I would have been disappointed had there not been what Allende calls redemption, had there not been a final reckoning, but I could not help feeling manipulated and taken in by the neatness and predictability of the story line. And while I appreciated the coming to class consciousness of the lead character, his realization of his own privileged status as a boy and of the intense class structure of the society in which he lived, still I was not quite convinced. I could see his fear and hatred of the brutal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by Russia, and his outrage at the subsequent, perhaps even more brutal control by the Taliban. But he seemed not to understand in a deeper sense how economic colonization and oppression occur. He was critical of the poverty he, himself, felt in America after he and his aristocratic father escaped Afghanistan, but it seemed more the indignation of an aristocrat forced into undeserved menial labor than a genuine coming to class consciousness. I may be mistaken about this, and I leave it to other readers to determine if and how my reading went wrong. Perhaps I am suspicious simply because of the rave receptions this book received in this country from both conservative and liberal commentators. Perhaps I simply doubt the heroic aspects of the book, the seemingly inevitable triumph of good over evil.
But enough of my reservations. How exciting it was simply to hear from this boy about the joys of kite-flying, the incredible kite battles that were a part of the annual festivals as he grew up. He tells of the complex and elaborate labors taken to construct the kites, the kite strings dipped in glue and ground glass, prepared to battle and cut loose the kites of other boys and young men. Amir grows up with and is constantly attended to by Hassan, a servant boy who happens to be almost exactly Amir’s age, and both become adept at kite-running, chasing after and capturing the kites that have been cut loose in the fierce battles overhead. Indeed, most of this book centers on the story of these two boys, and of the intense jealousy Amir feels towards Hassan because of the affection and attention Amir’s powerful, rich and aristocratic father showers on the mere servant. The more Hassan does for Amir, the more selfless his devotion is, the more resentful Amir becomes.
Without telling you about the events that lead to more and more sacrifice from Hassan, resulting in more and more shame, guilt, and resentment in Amir, it will suffice to mention the tragic and inevitable split between the boys. What Amir wants most in the world is the affection and respect of his powerful father, but he seems unable to get it, unable to earn it, and feels instead a shameful comparison between his weakness and Hassan’s strength. Amir both idolizes and fears his father. In his words,
Most of this book has to do with this love-hate relationship, Amir always trying to prove himself to his father and always, at least in his own eyes, falling short. Even when they are forced out of Afghanistan (to escape occupation by the U.S.S.R) and eventually immigrate to the U.S. where the power his father has via wealth is stripped from him, still the father remains strong and noble, working to provide for his family and to send his weakling son to school.
With me as the glaring exception, my father molded the world around him to his liking. The problem, of course, was that Baba saw the world in black and white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can’t love a person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a little.
Eventually, first through the love of a woman, and later through other not quite believable redemptive acts, Amir comes into his own, develops some sort of worldview which is not simply a reaction to his father’s. The reader comes to understand more the strictness and lack of tenderness that Amir’s father shows him, comes to understand that the tremendous guilt Amir feels towards the servant-boy Hassan is shared by his father as well. But whatever you conclude about how genuine Amir’s own redemption is, how much or little he has really come to understand about oppression and power, I think you will find the story of the two boys a lovely and captivating one. You might even be tempted to go buy and fly a kite.