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Some interesting and good books

The Kite Runner
Do I really have to read it?
By Meghan O'Rourke
Updated Monday, July 25, 2005, at 7:36 AM PT

Book cover.
Do I really have to read The Kite Runner? That was the question asked in the Slate offices this spring when the debut novel by Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The novel seemed eminently worthy, after all—not only the first one written in English by an Afghan, but chock-full of "eye-opening information about the turmoil in modern-day Afghanistan," as one reader put it. The Kite Runner has sold an astonishing 1.25 million copies in paperback, driven by word-of-mouth at a moment when sales of fiction are reportedly at a low. Scores of municipalities selected it for their Community Reads programs, citing its "universal" themes. Laura Bush called it "really great." As the months have passed, America has only grown more passionate about its merits. So here's the mystery: Why have Americans, who traditionally avoid foreign literature like the plague, made The Kite Runner into a cultural touchstone? What version of life abroad is it that seems so palatable and approachable to us? Why The Kite Runner and not any of the other books about Afghanistan that have recently hit the shelves?

The initial interest in the book clearly lay in the promise that it might deliver topical information in an accessible manner—humanizing the newspaper accounts of a place that suddenly became a U.S. preoccupation again after 9/11. This it does. Spanning nearly 30 years, The Kite Runner loosely fills in most of the relevant facts about Afghanistan's turbulent recent history—the 1978 civil war, the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban opposition, the tension between the Pashtuns and the Shiite Hazara minority—and fleshes out the cartoonish picture many Americans have of Afghanistan as a culture of warlords and cave hideouts. Its utilitarian prose animates a moment when Kabul was a lively city where schoolboys recited Sufi poetry and secular businessmen thrived. It makes use of journalistic detail to convey atmosphere: a man sells his artificial limb on a street corner, children fight kites every winter. And it offers up a lively and well-observed section about Afghani expatriates setting up flea markets in Fremont, Calif. Throughout, it translates key phrases and presents information with the diligence of a Frommer's travel guide: "If the story had been about anyone else," the narrator tells us, recalling a tale about his father wrestling black bears, "it would have been dismissed as laaf, that Afghan tendency to exaggerate—sadly, almost a national affliction." There is rarely any danger that the reader will find herself confused. Consider the moment when the first guns of the civil war go off: " 'Well,' I began. But I never got to finish that sentence. Because suddenly Afghanistan changed forever."

If The Kite Runner's early adopters picked up the book to learn something about Afghanistan, what kept them reading (and recommending it) is the appealingly familiar story at the heart of the novel: a struggle of personal recovery and unconditional love, couched in redemptive language immediately legible to Americans. The Kite Runner tells the story Amir and Hassan, two childhood best friends in Kabul, divided by class and ethnicity. Amir is a wealthy Pashtun, and Hassan, his servant, is a Hazara. Hassan is a child of preternatural goodness and self-confidence, though he is illiterate and often picked on by roving Pashtun boys, in particular a "sociopath" named Assef. Amir, whose mother died in childbirth, is an outsider ill-at-ease with himself. He is debilitatingly hungry for the love of his father, Baba, a wealthy businessman who is puzzled that his son prefers reading to watching soccer. The studiously symmetrical plot revolves around an act of childhood cowardice and cruelty that Amir—the narrator—must make amends for years later, after he and Baba have emigrated to America. "There is a way to be good again," a friend counsels him. It's clearly such messages of redemption that prompted one Amazon reviewer to observe that The Kite Runner "remind[s] us that we are all human alike, fighting similar daily and lifelong battles, just in different circumstances."

The problem is that this last qualifying phrase, "just in different circumstances," underscores how uneasily the two different aspects of the book—the journalistic travel guide approach and the language of redemption—rub against each other. This is a novel simultaneously striving to deliver a large-scale informative portrait and to stage a small-scale redemptive drama, but its therapeutic allegory of recovery can only undermine its realist ambitions. People experience their lives against the backdrop of their culture, and while Hosseini wisely steers clear of merely exoticizing Afghanistan as a monolithically foreign place, he does so much work to make his novel emotionally accessible to the American reader that there is almost no room, in the end, for us to consider for long what might differentiate Afghans and Americans.

The tidy "I'm being healed" trajectory that animates Amir's narrative is derived from a vocabulary of psychotherapeutic spiritual recovery that looks pretty threadbare when the predicament is the much messier one of a nation ravaged by political and religious war. This is hardly a book that whitewashes violence (several young boys are raped, and a woman is stoned to death), but the silver-screen melodrama of its central story line wishfully cuts against the fact-based horrors depicted within. Near the end of the book, Amir tries to make amends for his old act of betrayal by saving Hassan's orphaned son from a Talib warlord who has kidnapped him, and who is portrayed as a bloodthirsty would-be Hitler. The warlord turns out to be Assef—the childhood nemesis who had tormented Hassan. When Assef rhapsodizes about taking the "garbage" out of Afghanistan—a reference to the slaughter of Hazaras by the Taliban—Amir challenges him with a note so smugly struck it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, even though we agree with his disgust: "In the west, they have an expression for that," I said. "They call it ethnic cleansing." The Hollywood elements of his story conduce to a view of Afghanistan and its dilemmas that is in the end more riddled with facile moralizing than even the author may realize.

Because The Kite Runner's didactic lessons are the precise sort we are hungry to hear (redemption is possible, Western values are exportable, and so forth), it is worth being alert to what's missing from the novel, which is much exploration of the subtleties of assumptions that do divide people. "I started the book wondering if there were going to be a lot of differences between my perspective as a liberal Christian and a Muslim perspective," one book-club reader told her local newspaper. "I found that there's a lot in common. Amir comes to a point when he is desperate, he reaches to God. To me, that's the way people within Christianity are." Study the 631 Amazon reviews and scores of newspaper features about The Kite Runner, and you'll find that most fail to mention that the narrator converts from a secular Muslim to a devoutly practicing one. Hosseini's story indulges this readerly impulse to downplay what is hard to grasp and play up what seems familiar. In the drama of the novel, Amir's conversion isn't a sign of his adherence to a particular set of theological beliefs, but of a generalized spirituality reflecting his moral development over the course of the novel. As the Denver Post reviewer was all too happy to reassure readers, "This isn't a 'foreign' book. Unlike Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, Hosseini's narrative resonates with familiar rhythms and accessible ideas."

One shouldn't underrate the complexity of the task facing Hosseini, who understandably wanted to make the human predicament at the core of his novel seem universal, not remote. There's something to be said for The Kite Runner's strategy. This is a book you would never accuse of succumbing to the Orientalist fallacy—the West's tendency, as Edward Said has argued, to see Islamic society as fundamentally other (and implicitly inferior) to Western culture, and the embodiment of an exotic "Oriental" mind. Members of the Afghan community in America have praised The Kite Runner for its verisimilitude. (One mention of the novel on an Afghan discussion forum quickly led to a lively debate about Afghanistan's best kite fighters.)

But surely there is a middle ground. In Imaginary Homelands, a collection of essays, Salman Rushdie argues that the expatriate writer's vision of his homeland is necessarily suspect and that all novels of exile are a type of "broken mirror," complicated by nostalgia and wishfulness. He goes on to suggest that the exiled writer's duty is to be self-conscious about the ways his story is a partial one. Such a provisional, highly fictionalized vision, Rushdie argues, is paradoxically more accurate than any account that earnestly purports to capture an objective or "informative" depiction of national character or culture. Hosseini could benefit from a little more of this line of thinking. At the time of writing, he hadn't been to Afghanistan in 26 years, but he told one newspaper, "I tried to make a statement larger than what was going on in the book. What happened after the Soviet war is that the world just kind of packed its bags and went home and watched as the Afghans were brutalized." The Kite Runner may offer an unsparing portrait of ravage and despair. But it purveys an allegory of redemption and healing that, despite the seemingly unmediated realism of the atrocities it describes, is far too neatly reflected in the novel's tidy mirror.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture editor.

Living Dangerously
'The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan' by Jon Lee Anderson

Reviewed by Frank Smyth

Dispatches from Afghanistan
By Jon Lee Anderson
Grove. 244 pp. $24

Any egomaniac with an audience can do a live stand-up in an alleged combat zone these days, but Jon Lee Anderson is a war correspondent's journalist. On Sept. 11, while most Americans were still either looking up or glued to their television sets, Anderson sent an e-mail from southern Spain to his editor at the New Yorker in Manhattan. "I am guessing you never made it to the office. I hope everyone at the New Yorker is OK," he wrote. "I feel like I should be heading for Afghanistan, which I fully expect to be flattened any day now."

The result is an insightful book of dispatches that are different in focus from, but reminiscent, in their on-the-ground style, of the late Ernie Pyle's reporting from North Africa during World War II. In London, Anderson bought a portable satellite phone, which he used to file his reports from Central Asia over the ensuing months. A pack of hundreds of other reporters descended upon the region in late 2001, but Anderson, who had been covering the country since the days of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, was nearly the first journalist to reach Afghanistan after Sept. 11. All but one of these dispatches previously appeared in the weekly magazine, but much of the writing remains prescient.

"The sight of women, or at least discernibly human creatures in feminine clothes, is about the only thing that relieves the harshness of the landscape. This visible part of Afghan society is unremittingly male, as is the land, which is drab and muscular," writes Anderson. "Barefoot boys walk back and forth through beds of harvested rice, turning the grains with their toes to dry them in the sun. . . . Lambs are tethered next to men with long knives who slaughter them and hang the carcasses from hooks, hacking them into a steadily diminishing mess of blood and meat and bone and fat by day's end. Grain and vegetables are weighed in tin scales that are balanced with stones."

Anderson also gives his readers a window on himself. The book's narrative journalism is framed by contemporaneous e-mails that either begin or end every chapter. Most were sent by Anderson via laptop (with a special bullet-proof casing) and satellite phone to his editor, Sharon DeLano. Some e-mails show the hardships of prolonged frontline reporting. "Our compound has mud walls and mud floors and mud everything," he tells DeLano. "Outside, there is a large dirt patio with two hole-in-the-floor latrines, a vigilant mongrel dog, and -- as of yesterday -- a scorpion in the washroom."

Other e-mails reveal another side of a correspondent who is apparently not afraid of talking back to men with guns: "One [Afghan combatant] asked for a cigarette. I gave him one, but chided him, since it was Ramadan, and Muslims are not supposed to smoke [or eat or drink] during the daylight hours. Then another man came up and demanded a cigarette and I could see that the whole group of ten or so fighters were planning on doing this. So I said, No more.

"A third mujahideen, a burly man with a large PK machine gun slung over his shoulder, leered at me and grabbed me between the legs, hard. Then he darted away and laughed. I followed him and kicked him in the rear end, twice. This made his comrades roar with laughter, but he didn't think it was so funny, and he pointed his gun at me, then lowered it. I began cursing him in English and he raised the gun at me again and I could tell that he was cursing me too, in Dari. We had something of a standoff."

The book, as its title suggests, revolves around the murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud, "The Lion of Panjshir," the Northern Alliance commander who was killed by two Arab men posing as journalists two days before Sept. 11. Anderson convincingly ties the assassination to Osama bin Laden, who, like Anderson himself, apparently expected an American retaliation on Afghan targets in response to Sept. 11. In the only new reporting in the book, Anderson explores bin Laden's former home base south of Jalalabad, where he introduces readers to a heavily armed American named "Jack," a 46-year-old former U.S. Army Green Beret from Fayetteville, N.C., who claimed, "I have no official relationship to the U.S. government."

The strength of The Lion's Grave goes beyond its character profiles to its effective navigation of the crisscrossing lines of Afghan politics. Anderson already knew the country and its players, not only the late Massoud but also many lesser-known Afghans, including noncombatants. Like the dispassionately illuminating biography of Che Guevara that largely earned this correspondent his name, this book captures a time and a place that no one who reads it will forget. The text is interspersed with black-and-white images by Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak that depict austere Afghans usually in a cold landscape. For anyone tired of instant journalism, this book reflects an older art.

Frank Smyth is writing a book on the 1991 Iraqi uprisings against Saddam Hussein.