Monday, January 15, 2007

Afghanistan, then and now

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner is a novel that achieves some good things, and is an admirable effort for a first-time author. While Hosseini certainly could have done some things better, the book is gripping enough that I finished the entire thing (371 pages) in one sitting, a rare feat for me with any book.

Film critic James Berardinelli, who (as many of you know) is one of my favorite reviewers, divides the books he reads into three categories: "filler," which he doesn't really like, but keeps reading because he compulsively finishes; "page turners," which keep the momentum going with a good story; and "immersive," which are satisfying on many levels. I guess that I would divide those up somewhat differently, but the difference amounts more to a content issue than a categorizing one, with the additional note that I probably would never finish the "filler" books.

Hosseini's book falls somewhere between "page turner" and "immersive." The book is an easy read, written on a fairly basic level, but brings up important issues. At its best, it shows scenes from Afghanistan that one can easily imagine are from the author's memory or those of his friends and family. The depiction of prewar Afghanistan is sad and illuminating, as is that of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Perhaps the most memorable descriptions were those of persecution of the Hazara, and an execution at the soccer stadium under the Taliban.

When it comes to the action, Hosseini is uneven. He has convincing characters and an excellent dilemma as regards the main character, Amir, and his childhood friend(?), Hassan. The weaknesses and strengths that Amir shows are traits that affect all of us to some extent. Amir's illusions about many things are shattered as he learns, at great length, from his mistakes and tries to right the wrong. At the same time, he must live with the fact that he cannot escape his past actions regardless of what he does later.

Being someone who tends to focus more on the negative, I had two principal complaints. First, the amount of space dedicated to some parts of the story seems unbalanced to me--I don't have a problem with great lengths dedicated to developing plot, but some parts seem less relevant and too great an expense of time. Second, the foreshadowing is sometimes clumsy and the story too predictable, taking some of the air out of the action. The most successful part of the story is the initial background-building in Afghanistan between Amir and Hassan, and because of that, the reader's investment in the two characters is high. Indeed, some of the faults are chiefly noticeable and regrettable because the two characters and their story are so well-depicted.

That said, for anyone interested in Afghanistan, or not at all interested in the country but interested in the effects of past actions, the desire for redemption and the haunting of the past, I can recommend The Kite Runner without hesitation. It is an excellent effort (no need to add "for a first book"); Hosseini has since received a Humanitarian Award from the UN Refugee Agency and is a U.S. goodwill envoy. I am interested to see what Hosseini's book coming out in May, A Thousand Splendid Suns, has to offer.

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