Pros: Engaging narrative about Afghani culture in the first part
Cons: One ridiculous twist after another - becomes laughable before too long
The Bottom Line: Forget the hype - the Muslim community may just be thrilled to have a bestseller written by one of their own
Anyone who plays video games will tell you Final Fantasy IV is one of the all-time greats. There's a scene in Final Fantasy IV in which the main character, Cecil, gets shipwrecked and washes ashore in a kingdom his troops had recently terrorized. The people of the kingdom naturally arent very happy to see him, but since the incident in question, Cecil has undergone an incredible change of conscience which caused him to question his terrorist kings orders - and got him branded a traitor. He goes to the elder of the kingdom he terrorized to seek forgiveness and is told to seek redemption by climbing to the top of a mountain, renouncing his dark sword and becoming a paladin. Cecil succeeds after an arduous journey which seems difficult at the time, but with all he goes through by the game's conclusion, it ends up not being such a big deal in the long run.
In The Kite Runner, Amir, the narrator and main character, speaks of a day that changed everything through much of the first part of the book. On that day, Amir's friend and servant, Hassan, is raped by the local bully. That's a big deal, right? It would certainly seem like it, and Amir carries the guilt of bailing on Hassan for the rest of the book. As with Final Fantasy IV, however, the big deal is just a grain of sand in the desert by the end of the book. The difference between the two is that the game builds up a stunning, spectacular epic narrative. The Kite Runner, on the other hand, begins to jump the shark at its big moment.
The Kite Runner is bad. Very bad. It's a romance novel of epic literature - fluffy, cliched, uses every cheap trick it can to tug at your heartstrings and jerk out tears. It's the kind of forgettable slop a yuppie would read to say he was well-read and familiar with a vastly different and exotic culture. If a yuppie ever tells you that he read The Kite Runner, chances are the statement that preceded that was a taken-aback declaration that he doesn't really hate Arabs or Muslims or middle-easterners in general.
The Kite Runner is about Amir and a sequence of events that shape him and his life, starting mainly with the aforementioned rape. Amir is good friends with Hassan, his servant. Although his relationship with his father is strained because the two are so different, Amir is still very privileged and educated. He is also a coward. Hassan is the complete polar opposite of Amir, illiterate and a servant. Their friendship is unlikely and against the cultural dictation in Afghanistan. The first part of The Kite Runner builds the friendship between the two, and it is by far the most plausible part of the book. Author Khaled Hosseini writes a very engaging narrative here and sprinkles it with his firsthand knowledge of Afghani culture. The pre-rape part of the book is a wonderful reflection of youth and innocence, almost like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for the middle-eastern crowd. It makes the rape just that much more tragic when the moment comes.
The problems with both book and characters in book begin after it happens. The Kite Runner employs every tired cliche there is in order to reach your emotions. First, Hassan moves away. Then we are abruptly thrust into the middle of the Russian occupation years later for no apparent reason. Amir grows up, moves to California, goes to college, earns a degree, gets married, and becomes a writer. He carries the guilt of having ran off when his friend needed him all those years ago, and circumstances eventually drive him back to Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. He finds Hassan's son, eventually.
I knew I was supposed to feel bad for the characters, but by the end, I was almost laughing because they had become so hopelessly predictable and cliched. After the end-of-innocence tragedy, the book goes through an unrelenting string of tragedies. He wins a kite-flying contest which gets him a better relationship with his father, who never quite appreciated his son's other good qualities. The two of them finally bond in California, but this isn't believable because it had already been established that they were far apart because of their differences. The father is another laughable character - I understand he had his pride, but his ability to just happily slide into near-poverty after being rich without the slightest hint of anger makes it ridiculous.
Hosseini realized that upon Amir's return to Afghanistan, he would have to re-write Hassan back into the story. Unfortunately, without giving away just how Hosseini deals with his character's obvious inconvenience, I'll just say the way he deals with Hassan makes him come off like an irritated mafia don. After this, the book really begins to go off on a string - events just happen between shocking tragic twists. We get to meet Hassan's son and see Amir adopt him as an act of redemption, but the kid is ten years old. Yet, he comes off just as world-weary and wise as Amir, his wife, or his father. It's not the slightest bit believable, and when a few other bad things happen, you'll be laughing.
In the last 40 or so pages, The Kite Runner is barely readable because it's just come down to something so bad. Khaled Hosseini had a great, simple writing style, and that may be the only thing that will keep a lot of book lovers going. But if you can guess the twist that comes up at a moment when Amir is sitting down with a Taliban leader, you could probably close the book and guess the rest almost to the letter. It's just that predictable, no matter what twist Hosseini tries to throw at us. Obstacle after obstacle, Hosseini tries, but it really feels like he got what he wanted to write about out of the way after the first part and slapped the rest together in three days.
Here's a better idea, though: If you get that far and start guessing what's going to happen - there's a good chance you'll have a success rate around 80 percent - you could simply sit at your computer and write a whole new ending. Or a new story.
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