To start with, a health warning: reading Khaled Hosseini will give you heartache. But don’t worry — you can be cured.
This story is told by Amir, the son of an affluent businessman, living in a fashionable area of Kabul in the 1960s; his friend Hassan lives with his father, the house servant, in a shack at the bottom of the garden. Both have lost their mothers (Amir’s died in childbirth, Hassan’s ran away). The lives of the two men and their sons are closely entwined; Amir has an aching need to please his father, his beloved, feared Baba. Hassan’s father Ali is quiet, protective. The boys play endlessly together, just as their fathers did in their youth. But Amir is a Pashtun, one of the ethnic majority in Afghanistan, a Sunni. Hassan is a Hazara, of the Shi’a minority that has suffered discrimination and persecution for generations. So, these are unequal friendships. Amir reads to Hassan from atop their favorite pomegranate tree; later, the pomegranate juice runs down Hassan’s face, like blood.
And then there are the kites, and the exhilarating ritual of kite-running — the technicalities of which you will have to read for yourself. Here there is pain and pleasure: kite-running cuts your hands to shreds. A blue kite lands in a dusty alley, one cloudy winter’s evening. This triggers a brutal act, and a bitter betrayal that haunts Amir to the end of the story. Soon after, he and Baba become refugees as the Soviets invade, escaping over the border to Pakistan and then to America, his highly successful father’s life now reduced to “one disappointing son and two suitcases.” There is a new life in California: a life of flea markets and junior college, rides along the coast road, a childless marriage, and the death of the exhausted Baba. Then, in his late thirties, Amir returns to Pakistan to visit his ailing childhood mentor, Rahim Khan. Here the emotional intensity of the novel picks up again, several notches. Amir embarks on another, more dangerous journey back to his homeland, to rescue one of the “broken children” of Kabul, during the Taliban regime. Finally, back in his adopted home, flying a kite in the park, there is a glimpse — a hope — of redemption.
There are scenes of sharp beauty: the first day of snowfall in Kabul, with the sky “seamless and blue”; kites falling from the sky “like shooting stars.” There is also grinding cruelty: a horrific half-time interval at a football match in the Taliban’s Kabul, and the agony of a father whose son suffocates in the fuel tank of the truck driven across the border.
Hosseini is a wonderful, unsentimental story-teller. Like many first novels, there are autobiographical touches. Like the author, young Amir immerses himself in Persian poetry and translations of Western novels; like the author, he becomes an expatriate in California, where he writes his first novel. While Hosseini’s language is at times abrupt and simple, the emotion it expresses is pure, sometimes harsh, and goes straight to the heart — or perhaps more aptly, to the stomach.
Amir is an unworthy hero; but we also desperately hope that, in the words of Rahim Khan, “there is a way to be good again.” And, with Amir, we are haunted by the sweet, round face of the devoted Hassan, with his slanting green eyes, and a small scar on his upper lip: “For you, a thousand times over.”