Tuesday, January 15, 2013

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF KHALED HOSSEINI'S THE KITE RUNNER


I wanted to like this book. Much of the first third or so is well told, contains even some beautiful passages, and has a wonderful character in Baba, the father of the protagonist.

The book's theme I believe may be summarized as courage, and in the first third, taking place in Afghanistan, we see the courage of Baba and the cowardice of his son, Amir.

The second third or so, occurring in America, loses most of those qualities, contains serious improbabilities (as in the medical care poor migrants receive and in how the characters adequately support themselves in their small occupations) , loses opportunities to enrich the story (the enchanting possibilities of the flea market full of exotic characters), and has a genuinely cardboard cut-out of a character, the protagonist's wife, Soraya, who stops being interesting after the first charming description of her face.

The third part, back in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, continues in the vein of the second, only more so. Here there is an effort at redemption - a favorite theme of Americans, almost a national mantra  - and in my view it not doesn't work and suffers from being tedious. The improbabilities mount with two more instances of near miraculous medical care under extreme conditions and a ridiculous fight in a closed room with a Taleban commander, a scene almost from a "boys' own" book for twelve-year olds. The character of the grown Hassan is simply unbelievable. And the evil Taleban commander, revealed as the same psychopath Amir knew when he grew up in Afghanistan, is a genuine comic book character.

One very much senses the author having had the glimmer of an interesting story, and after developing it for a while with some success, simply arrived at a point of not knowing what to do with it. After the first part, the story becomes tired and loses its ability to grip or enchant. He tells us in the first portion of the book almost all he appears to have to say worth saying.

But what strikes me as dishonesty is the book's worst fault. Whether consciously or not, I do not feel this is an honest tale full of the complexities and nuances of real life. Rather he has constructed, whether consciously or unconsciously, a Potemkin Village kind of structure, essentially a piece of propaganda.

Taleban are terrible. Americans and old school Afghans are good.

Perhaps what most bothered me about the book is its unrelenting demonization of the Taleban. Don't misunderstand, I am not a fan of these or any fanatical people and well know the Taleban have done horrible things.

But then all fanatics and extreme ideologues do horrible things, and in Afghanistan that includes many of the members of the Northern Alliance, the Taleban's main enemy and America's ally. The author's sentimentalized America would, shortly after events in this book, inflict countless horrors on Afghanistan and Iraq, being responsible for the deaths of a million people, several million refugees, and the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons on civilians, amongst other horrors.

The Northern Alliance are the folks upon whom America conferred the rule of Afghanistan, after they did most of the fighting against the Taleban on the ground while brave Americans dropped countless bombs from 30,000 feet. General Dostum, one of the warlords making up the Alliance, stands out today as resembling Vlad the Impaler, who provided the foundations for the Dracula legend. No member of the Taleban could possibly exceed his many acts steeped in horror.

Indeed, what few in the West understand, and what the author completely leaves out of events, is that when the Russians departed Afghanistan, the various warlords of what would be the Northern Alliance ruled in a kind of medieval chaos. People were shot in the streets and upon roads all the time, and you couldn't go far along any road before having to pay "tolls" to the warlord governing that region. The Taleban actually started as a "clean government" party who fought to end the chaotic conditions and indeed did so.

The author uses the rape of boys to heighten the cartoon image of a demonic Taleban, the rape of Amir's boyhood friend, Hassan, as it proves his half brother, as well as the rape later of the dead Hassan's son. But if you've followed events closely during America's brutal and pointless war in Afghanistan, you know the rape of boys is common in that harsh and desolate place. It is in no way peculiar to the Taleban.

A Canadian soldier - still shocked by things he saw there - told of an interpreter, certainly not Taleban, working for the Canadian Forces raping a boy within sight of others, hurting the child to the point of blood running down his legs, and there were others like him. Such people weres never held accountable because America needed them.

Overall, despite a bright spot here and there, this is a weak book and is not recommended.

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