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Publication Date: Friday, August 29, 2003
A kite to cure the soul
A kite to cure the soul
(August 29, 2003)
By Diana Reynolds Roome
Khaled Hosseini -- whose novel The Kite Runner is probably the first in English by an Afghan writer -- is a wizard in the arts of fiction. But it comes as no surprise to learn that he is also a physician -- who, as it happens, practices here in Mountain View.
Though human maladies crop up with curious regularity in the novel, its real concern is sickness of the spirit. In desperate pursuit of a cure for the guilt brought on by betrayals he committed while still a boy, the protagonist Amir returns to Afghanistan during the recent Taliban era, leading himself into grave danger. His quest culminates in a deadly hand-to-hand fight with a boyhood adversary now wielding terrifying power. It is a fight worthy of the ancient epics as well as the Hollywood movies that Hosseini (and Amir) grew up on, and the intense physical suffering that results in paradoxical relief to his tormented mind.
"The book is about redemption on a personal level, but also on a larger scale with Afghanistan having sinned against itself, especially in the civil war" of the early 1990s, says Hosseini, who moved to the United States at age 15 when his family was granted political asylum. He went to high school in San Jose and later to UCSD Medical School.
Hosseini grew up speaking Farsi and French, as his father was a diplomat and the family lived in Paris for several years. Once he came to the US, he picked up English fast and "found it to be a lovely language," he says. "I love writing in English. But I don't think writing is necessarily about knowing the language well. Whether you're writing in Farsi, French or English, there's a voice in your head and you just have to find some way of articulating that voice."
The Kite Runner's narrative voice is a powerful one, starting out in northern California in 2001. It quickly reverts to the memories of a boy growing up in Kabul during the comparatively peaceful days before the Communist invasion that set off decades of unrest and destruction. Amir's boyhood friendship with Hassan, a family servant and Hazara -- a repressed ethnic group of Shiite Muslims, as opposed to the Pashtun Sunnis -- is at the center of an idyllic childhood in which the national sport of kite fighting is the biggest challenge and thrill.
The tight loyalty between Amir and Hassan as they try to down their opponents' kites -- all their strings are coated with a mixture of glue and ground glass -- is a measure of their friendship. But due to a jealousy whose roots are only later understood and an admitted lack of courage, Amir betrays his friend in a situation far more serious than kite flying. The trail of destruction that comes in the wake of this treachery leads to more and more sins in an uncontrollable cascade reminiscent of Macbeth -- though unlike Macbeth, Amir ultimately finds his way back to a good life.
The Kite Runner's revelations (there are many) vividly bring to life aspects of Afghanistan that may have been understood by most Americans only as factual news briefs. They also plumb the depths of the psyche, at its best and worst.
"Both as a writer and as a physician you need ... to have a little bit of insight into human nature, to look at background, socioeconomic status, religion, nationality, put those things together and see how they contribute to the person in front of you," says Hosseini. Nevertheless, many of his characters' physical traits or maladies are closely observed and reported: the harelip of a best friend, the warts on an aunt's hands, hypochondria, migraines, insomnia, stroke, cancer and later, physical injuries.
Some of these manifestations are pivotal to the plot. But as Hosseini points out, these details are only a part of the story. "If you look at a patient as a conglomerate of diagnoses, you're missing the point. You need to listen to what they're not saying."
As it turns out, what the protagonist Amir does not say -- and conceals even from his wife through years of marriage -- is the impetus that drives him back to Afghanistan, against her wishes and his own better judgment. Hosseini's account of Taliban era Kabul, as well as earlier periods, is drawn from accounts of fellow Afghans who had lived through them, a hodgepodge of heard and read sources.
He did not return to Kabul himself until March of this year, after the book was in production. As it turns out, the city he described in the book was very accurate -- though somewhat tamer -- than the bizarre reality. Beneath it all are his own memories of the place from an earlier, more peaceful era, when a king was on the throne and later during the birth of the republic.
The reaction of Afghans here has been mostly one of gratitude, that one of their own has told their story. For the majority of readers, the book conveys the humanity which has been missing from most news reports, and brings vivid imaginative access to the experiences of the people of Afghanistan, both in their own country and now in this one.
The book has clearly struck a cord with people everywhere: it has received rave reviews, been translated into 12 languages, and appeared on several best book and bestseller lists.
Khaled Hosseini is reading and answering questions at the Mountain View Library Aug. 28 at 7:30. Autographed copies of The Kite Runner, Riverhead Books, $24.95. will be available courtesy of Books Inc.