Hazel McHaffie

America

The Kite Runner

The perfect confection of fine writing, moving themes and dramatic storytelling

Shattering … devastating and inspiring

Well, the reviews certainly sang the praises of The Kite Runner by Afghan-American author, Khaled Hosseini, when it came out in 2011. I bought the book years ago, but regrettably it’s only just come to the top of my tbr pile; I missed a real treat. On the other hand, given that I now know people from these countries, it probably has much more personal resonance than it would have done back then.

The official blurb sums up a complex tale succinctly.
Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

Hassan and Amir are two Afghan motherless boys, whose fathers grew up together (Hassan’s father being adopted by Amir’s grandfather when he was suddenly and violently orphaned). The boys were fed by the same nursing breast, took their first halting steps on the same lawn, said their first words under the same roof. They commit many boyish pranks together, Hassan always ready to fall in with Amir’s wishes, ready too to take the blame when they’re found out. United as playmates they might be, but they’re forever separated by caste and religion. Hassan is a servant boy, a Shia Muslim, a Hazara, with mongoloid features and a hare lip, who lives in a mud shack. Far more naturally athletic than his friend, he’s an ace kite runner. Amir, on the other hand, is a wealthy Sunni Muslim, a Pashtun (oppressors of the Hazaras), a comely lad, living in a mansion, only son of one of the richest merchants in Kabul. But Amir is much less principled than his friend; Hassan is so ‘pure’ and truthful and unfailingly respectful that Amir always feels like a phony in his presence.

Amir attends school, but Hussan is illiterate, a mere servant, kept busy by his duties. However, the two boys share a love of stories, and Amir often reads to his playmate. Indeed, it’s Hussan’s praise that spurs Amir on when he begins to dabble in storytelling himself. In fifth grade, Amir is taught about Islam by a mullah – the evils of worldly pleasures, the importance of memorising the Koran, the intricacies of performing the set prayers. But he’s already aware of the double standards existing in his country, and his father teaches him that, if there is a God out there, he has more important things to do than worry about what men are eating and drinking. As a result, Amir hovers between the two stances about God.

Amir’s father is an aloof man who doesn’t give the boy much attention, resenting the fact that his beloved wife died giving him birth. A natural winner at everything he sets his mind to, he finds his son a constant source of disappointment. Amir hasn’t inherited a shred of his father’s athletic abilities; he’s much more interested in literature than sport. The only common ground is kite flying – a major tradition in Afghanistan.

Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different spheres of existence. Kites were the one paper-thin slice of intersection between those spheres.

But life changes forever when civil war erupts in Afghanistan. It’s July 1973. Suddenly the monarchy is a thing of the past, the 40-year reign of the king has ended with a bloodless coup. For a short time a sense of rejuvenation pervades the land; people even talk of women’s rights and modern technology. And the fortunes of the two Afghan boys seem to be in the ascendancy too. Amir’s father pays for Hussan to have an operation to repair his harelip as a birthday gift. Then when Amir is 12, he wins the annual kite tournament and thereby finally wins his father’s pride.

But that proud day, after successfully bagging the last kite left flying, Hassan is cornered by three thugs and brutally raped. Amir saw it happening but did nothing at all to stop it; an act of cowardice that will haunt him for the rest of his days.

Wracked by the terrible memories and crushing guilt, Amir compounds the injustice by drumming Hassan out of his life. But even then, falsely accused, deserted by his childhood friend, Hassan refuses to betray Amir; he’s the very embodiment of loyalty, kindness and martyrdom. Such forgiveness, such selflessness, serving to deepen Amir’s self-loathing still further.

Six years later life again changes irrevocably in Afghanistan, and the pampered lives of Amir and his father come to an abrupt end.

… the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan … villages were burned and schools destroyed … mines were planted like seeds of death and children buried in rock-piled graves … Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of hare lipped ghosts.

They eventually flee from the brutality and lawlessness via unscrupulous people traffickers, a rat-infested basement, and smuggled in trucks, to a new life in America.

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade in this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories and no sins.

A place for Amir to bury his memories certainly, but a place for his father to mourn his. He cannot reconcile himself to the ways of a people so different from those of his beloved homeland.

When Amir declares his intention to study creative writing his father’s reaction is predictably scornful:
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Wah wah! So, if I understand, you’ll study several years to get a degree, then you’ll get a chatti job like mine, one you could just as easily land today, on the small chance that your degree might someday help you get … discovered.’

When he falls in love with Soraya, an Afghan woman with a past, Amir’s burden of guilt is exacerbated again.  His new wife is more honourable than he – she has the courage to admit her faults – while his secret remains unspoken between them. What’s more, though honour and pride are the watchwords of the Pashtun people, he’s acutely aware that different standards apply to women than to men.

Back in Afghanistan, the warring factions have destroyed properties, opportunities and hopes. By the time Amir next hears news of Hussan, the Taliban have taken over. They ban kite flying; they massacre the Hazaras. Sharia law prevails.
Kindness has gone from the land and you cannot escape the killings … fear is everywhere … the savages who rule our watan don’t care about human decency.
Amir himself witnesses a barbaric stoning to death of a man and woman for adultery during a brief visit to his homeland.

When he hears from his father’s old friend of the murder of Hassan and his wife by the Taliban, Amir’s first thought is for their little boy, Sohrab. But what he learns about Hassan himself, shocks him to the core: their whole lives have been one massive cycle of lies, betrayals and secrets. But worse, this new knowledge means that his childhood betrayal of Hassan and his ongoing guilt are now magnified colossally. So, should he accept the opportunity that presents to end the toxic cycle; this last chance at redemption? The answer comes through a veil of tears.

A moving and profoundly challenging story.

PS. I must just share this gem …
An infertility specialist: ‘A man’s plumbing is like his mind: simple, very few surprises. You ladies, on the other hand … well, God put a lot of thought into making you.’

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Discombobulated thinking

Coimbra University LibraryIt was enough of a shock coming from 28 degrees in Portugal last week (and yes, the sky really was this blue) to snow on the Pentlands here this week (currently in the minuses).

First snow on the Pentland HillsThen, as if the Brexit vote wasn’t bad enough back in June, this week the unthinkable, the unbelievable, has happened on the other side of the Atlantic. A staggeringly unqualified, openly racist, xenophobic, mysogynist has been chosen as the next president – yes, chosen! – to lead the world’s most powerful nation. I felt so despairing yesterday morning when I woke to this news I had to tramp the streets and divert my attention to doing something practical to help the aged and lonely and disadvantaged amongst us. No mood for writing anything more exacting than the annual Christmas story for the grandchildren.

So nothing erudite today. I’ll just share with you something I came across during the week. As you know, I’m still considering writing a thriller this time around, so my attention was instantly caught by Doug Johnstone’s five tips for writing an unputdownable novel.

In essence they are:

  1. Start the novel in the thick of the action with your central character. No preamble, no prologue.
  2. Cut all the extraneous detail to make the language crisp and sparse. No gentle musing or scene setting.
  3. Give the reader breathing space, a moment of respite from the fast action, to give the story emotional punch. Allow the characters to reflect on their experiences occasionally, but keep it brief.
  4. Vary sentence length. Mix staccato statements with longer poetic flowing passages.
  5. Use dialogue but sparingly. Arrive as late as possible to the conversation and leave as early as you decently can.

Hmmm. Interesting, and slightly different from other advice I’ve read. Sounds good, though, and lots of food for thought in my case. As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium I’ll be testing out the wisdom of these tips.

In the meantime, let’s just pray for the American people and world peace, huh?

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