Why do doctors so often make good writers? Somerset Maugham, John Keats, Anton Chekhov, Daniel Mason…The list is long and growing. Discipline? The ability to work under pressure and in all kinds of conditions? High intelligence? Unadulterated exposure to both extreme suffering and extraordinary bravery?
According to Ethan Canin, doctor and author of America America, “It’s like being a soldier. You’ve seen great and terrible things.”
This could easily be a direct reference to writer Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner, does, indeed, traverse a universe of “great and terrible things”. From the protagonist’s private battle with his conscience to the Soviet and Taliban oppression of Afghanistan, Hosseini addresses moral, emotional and political issues with passion and empathy.
The novel is a recount of the life of the protagonist, Amir. As the story opens, he is a young, privileged boy of Pashtun ethnicity, living in Afghanistan prior to Soviet occupation. His closest childhood friend is Hassan, a Hazara, and his father’s servant’s son. Despite the contrast in their wealth, status and education, Hassan is loyal, kind-hearted and protective of Amir. The two of them share games and make a successful team at kite-running.
However, their friendship is forever altered when Amir witnesses Hassan suffer a cruel, prejudice-fueled crime in the streets of Kabul. Immobilized, Amir fails to defend his friend, engages in acts of deception, and spends years haunted by his inaction and his conscience. It is only upon his return to Afghanistan as an adult, after many years living in the United States, that he begins to make peace with his past.
Hosseini’s relationship with his characters is like that of a deeply devoted, but non-indulgent parent with a child. He knows their strengths and their weaknesses inside out. This is why the reader becomes so quickly attached. We like Amir for his sensitivity and feel his pain at his father’s disapproval, but are profoundly disappointed by his weakness and ensuing dishonesty. Simultaneously, we dislike Baba’s inability to understand Amir and refusal to accept his dream of becoming a writer. However, Baba’s courage in risking his life to defend the honour of an unknown woman, threatened by a drugged and hostile soldier, inspires our admiration.
Hosseini understands the power of a particular action or detail in revealing character and place. His pre-revolutionary Afghanistan is the taste of mulberries, the smell of kabob and the crunch of snow underfoot. The reader lives through the Taliban’s destruction of cities and towns, not through the abstract of politics, but through the loss of the intimate sensory experiences that make up an individual’s world. Hosseini depicts the Taliban regime in all of its brutality, including a horrifically haunting scene of a public stoning, with the literary restraint necessary to provoking the reader’s deepest compassion.
The plight of Afghan refugees is portrayed too, from the confusion and fear experienced in over-crowded vehicles fleeing across the border to Pakistan, to the sense of displacement felt amongst those who migrated to America.
The Kite Runner is a rich and complex novel. Like the writers with powerful social concerns that have come before him, such as John Steinbeck, Hosseini interweaves the individual stories of morally complex characters with a stirring portrayal of the political and social turmoil that has shaped Afghanistan’s recent history.