The Earth turns and the wind blows and sometimes some marvelous scrap of paper is blown against the fence for us to find. And once found, we become aware there are places out there that are both foreign and familiar. Funny what the wind brings.
And now it brings "The Kite Runner," a beautiful novel by Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini that ranks among the best-written and provocative stories of the year so far.
Hosseini's first novel - and said to be the first Afghan novel to be written originally in English - "The Kite Runner" tells a heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between Amir, the son of a wealthy Afghan businessman, and Hassan, the son of his father's servant. Amir is Sunni; Hassan is Shi'a. One is born to a privileged class; the other to a loathed minority. One to a father of enormous presence; the other to a crippled man. One is a voracious reader; the other illiterate.
The poor Hassan is born with a harelip, but Amir's gaps are better hidden, deep inside.
Yet Amir and Hassan live and play together, not simply as friends, but as brothers without mothers. Their intimate story traces across the expansive canvas of history, 40 years in Afghanistan's tragic evolution, like a kite under a gathering storm. The reader is blown from the last days of Kabul's monarchy - salad days in which the boys lives' are occupied with school, welcome snows, American cowboy movies and neighborhood bullies - into the atrocities of the Taliban, which turned the boys' green playing fields red with blood.
This unusually eloquent story is also about the fragile relationship fathers and sons, humans and their gods, men and their countries. Loyalty and blood are the ties that bind their stories into one of the most lyrical, moving and unexpected books of this year.
Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, the son of a diplomat whose family received political asylum in the United States in 1980. He became a doctor in California, where he does charity work for Aid the Afghan Children and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. If that sounds slightly ironic, consider it your first lesson in the complexity of the Muslim world.
Hosseini's title refers to a traditional tournament for Afghan children in which kite-fliers compete by slicing through the strings of their opponents with their own razor-sharp, glass-encrusted strings. To be the child who wins the tournament by downing all the other kites - and to be the "runner" who chases down the last losing kite as it flutters to earth - is the greatest honor of all.
And in that metaphor of flier and runner, Hosseini's story soars. As it opens, Amir receives a call from an old family friend 20 years after he immigrates to the United States from war-torn Afghanistan:
"One day last summer, my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I knew it wasn't just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins."After I hung up, I went for a walk along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of Golden Gate Park. ... Then I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails, soaring in the sky. They danced high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills, floating side by side like a pair of eyes looking down on San Francisco, the city I now call home. And suddenly Hassan's voice whispered in my head: For you, a thousand times over. Hassan the harelipped kite runner."
And fear not, gentle reader. This isn't a "foreign" book. Unlike Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," Hosseini's narrative resonates with familiar rhythms and accessible ideas, all in prose that equals or exceeds the typical American story form. While exotic Afghan customs and Farsi words pop up occasionally, they are so well-defined for the reader that the book is enlightening and fascinating, not at all tedious.
Nor is it a dialectic on Islam. Amir's beloved father, Baba, is the son of a wise judge who enjoys his whiskey, television and the perks of capitalism. A moderate in heart and mind, Hosseini has little good to say about Islamic extremism.
"The Kite Runner" is a song in a new key. Hosseini is an exhilaratingly original writer with a gift for irony and a gentle, perceptive heart. His canvas might be a place and time Americans are only beginning to understand, but he paints his art on the page, where it is intimate and poignant.