Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review - "The Kite Runner"

I have mixed feelings about “The Kite Runner”. There is no question that Khaled Hosseini is a talented and charming storyteller. He knows how to titillate readers’ sensibilities. Indeed, that the movie adaptation was as much a success as the novel bears evidence to that. Somehow the story reminds me of the hugely popular film “Slumdog Millionaire”. Maybe because both stories are great tear-jerkers.

“The Kite Runner” does touch my sensibilities. I am deeply saddened by what happens to Hassan. I can empathize with Amir for his burden of guilt. I am moved by the description of Hassan’s unquestioning loyalty towards Amir and of the father-son relationship between Amir and Baba. I am shocked at the human conditions in war-torn Afghanistan and I am appalled about the plight of Afghan children. But I can’t help feeling there’s still something amiss in the novel. Perhaps a precious chance to embed a deeper meaning to the novel was lost.

In my humble opinion, a great novel should have one or several strong moral messages besides being a fantastic read. In other words, there should be more than just the surface layer of a story which serves the superficial function of entertaining, touching, thrilling, shocking or in whatever other ways of catering to the stimulation of the reader’s senses. In “The Kite Runner”, one important theme would seem to be that of social dilemmas arising from class distinction – between the privileged class of the Pashtuns and the downtrodden servant class of the Hazaras. I’m just a little disappointed that the author didn’t leverage on this theme to deliver a universal ethical message – that of the necessity of eliminating class discrimination in all societies, that all humans should be treated as equals. If the message is already there, it may be a little too subtle for detection.

In the main storyline, where Hassan’s unreciprocated loyalty and affection towards Amir is implied as the chief cause for Amir’s guilty conscience, there is no mention that Amir is in any way angry about the social norm that pits his class against Hassan’s class. Inasmuch as Amir has genuine feelings of remorse for mistreating the pal he grew up with, it’s not the same as showing disgust for the unjust social norm of class distinction and discrimination. (The best Amir can do in this respect is to tell his father-in-law never to refer to Sohrab, Hassan’s son, as ‘that Hazara’, in his presence.) One would wonder whether the adult Amir would fight for equality in his society if there was no war and if he and Baba didn’t have to flee to America, or whether he would just wallow in his snug privileged position all his life.

And then there is so much hypocrisy in Baba, the one who is portrayed as the brave, self-righteous, loving and generous father. He would rather endure not acknowledging Hassan as his lawful son and take the secret to his grave than having his “good” name ruined because of the shame he felt for sleeping with his servant’s wife, a Hazara. For all the charitable deeds that Baba does and for his kind treatment of Ali, he is still someone who condones class distinction. What he could have done for Ali and Hassan is to help them stand on their own feet rather than keeping them as servants and taking care of them. Again, one is not sure whether Amir thinks that Baba is in the wrong here, as playing patron to someone is quite different from respecting him as an equal.

Having said all that, I do admit that I may be overly critical, because in times of great turmoil, who would give a damn to social equality when there are the wounded, the hungry, the homeless and the destitute to worry about? But then shouldn’t every opportunity be grasped to spread the important message to and educate societies about a basic value?

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