Nothing that I am going to say about The Kite Runner (2004; Riverhead, 2003) ought to diminish in the slightest any reader's satisfaction in this extremely strong story of redemption and protection.
One of the blurbs on the back cover of Khaled Hosseini's first novel, from the Washington Post Book World, runs,
A powerful book ... no frills, no nonsense, just hard, spare prose...
It's not as hard and spare as all that, but The Kite Runner is one of the most artless novels that I have ever read, and I was quite confused by it until a possible resolution became clear, well past the half-way point. The Kite Runner turned out to be the very opposite sort of book from the kind that Miss G's remark led me to expect. "It's hard at the beginning," she said, while non-verbally challenging me to read a book that had meant a great deal to her. I assumed she meant that the story would be hard-going at first, difficult to read for some reason, such as violent subject matter or narrative obliquity. But it was the end of the book that I found hard: suspense overwhelmed my eyes to the point where they could hardly read.
But the novel remained artless right up to the last page. By this I mean that, for all the novel's careful plotting and deft foreshadowing, the actual prose was for the most part as plain as water.
A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: "Avoid them like the plague." Then he'd laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they're dead-on. But the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché. For example, "the elephant in the room" saying. Nothing could more correctly describe the initial moments of my reunion with Rahim Khan.
The "elephant in the room" is the narrator's great shame. Years before, when he was thirteen, Amir stood by while Hassan, his constant companion and the son of his father's servant, was attacked and raped by a sociopathic youth. Shamed by this cowardice, Amir could find only one balm for his misery, the removal of Hassan from his home. Thus the shameful inaction gave rise to shameful actions, as Amir tried to make Hassan look like a thief. There was an element of jealousy as well; Amir feared that his father, a powerful man in every sense of the word, loved Hassan more than himself. Now, he is pretty sure that Rahim Khan knows some, if not all, of this; as it turns out, Rahim Khan has a secret to tell, too. Perhaps it would be better to say that the elephant is the stock of secrets that are about to be disclosed.
The cliché is indeed apt. It's the tone of what goes before that bothers me. The phrase "bum rap" shouldn't be here, or anywhere near the awful hush that precedes the interview between two men who have not seen one another in twenty years. And I do not agree that the truth of clichés is always, or even ordinarily, diminished by their being clichés. Really, all that we have here is a bit of throat-clearing. The paragraph that follows is quite different.
We sat on a wispy mattress set along the wall, across the window overlooking the noisy street below. Sunlight slanted in and cast a triangular wedge of light onto the Afghan rug on the floor. Two folding chairs rested against one wall and a small copper samovar sat in the opposite corner. I poured us tea from it.
I poured us tea from it, trying in vain to ignore the elephant in the room.
The Kite Runner reads like a literate but unedited memoir, its pattern of crises following that of a given life and its language reflecting the way most educated American write - which is to say that the writing is all right. English is at best a second language for Mr Hosseini, and he handles it ably, but not, as I say, artfully. There is even, notwithstanding the Post, the occasional overwritten note.
The sky was a deep black when the phone jolted me from sleep. I rubbed my eyes and turned on the bedside lamp. It was a little past 10:30 PM. I'd been sleeping for almost three hours. I picked up the phone. "Hello."
Skies are not "deep black" to eyes that need rubbing. In the space of less than a page, Amir will be confronting his final, most harrowing crisis, but there is nothing in the lines that I've quoted to prepare the reader for it. I don't mean that there ought to be some foreshadowing. It's just that the banality of the language misses a great opportunity to tie the novel's themes together, so that the impact of the nightmare ahead is amplified to its just extent, instead of popping the reader with a shock that can't at first be apprehended. The waking up, the rubbing of the eyes, the looking at the clock, the picking up the phone and saying "Hello" - this is all true to life. But it is not true to the novel, or not true enough.
Perhaps this would be a good place to compose an explication de texte of the four-page scene in which this passage appears. But explications de texte are intended to tease out significance from the author's composition: from the choice of words, from the syntax, from the allusions - from everything. In English, we say that we "unpack" or "unpick" the text, until we're satisfied that we've palpated everything immanent in the words. There's no call for that here, because there's not enough to unpack. Sohrab, the young son of the now-massacred Hassan whom Amir has just rescued from Taliban Afghanistan, has been told that, contrary to prior assurances, he may have to spend some time in an orphanage before he can be taken to America. It was from an orphanage in Kabul that Sohrab was sold as a catamite to the same sociopath who raped his father, and Sohrab would rather die than risk finding himself in another, especially after soothing assurances are shown to be unreliable. In his grief, he falls asleep. As does Amir, who is awakened by the ten o'clock phone call. From this call he learns that the road to Sohrab's immigration to America has been smoothed by well-connected relatives; there will be no need for another orphanage. As I said, however, Sohrab would rather die. Surely one wouldn't have to be Charles Dickens to wring great feeling from this scene. But it is only a sliver of light under the bathroom door that prepares us for the cruel irony that Amir will find when he opens it. This isn't understatement. It's skimping. I think that there might have been more.
Correspondingly, in other parts of the book, there might have been less. The chapters about the narrator's life in America ought to have been whittled down to just one, a taut intermezzo between "Then" and "Now," and not what begins all too soon to read like material for another novel. In retrospect, there is little in these chapters that the reader doesn't need to know, but it is presented at such length that I, for one, got quite lost, and had no idea of where the book was going. It is one thing for a writer to trick me into expecting one denouement while withholding until the last minute a much more interesting one, and quite another to leave me floundering.
In a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, appearing in the April 21 issue of The London Review of Books last spring, Frank Kermode wrote,
Everything is expertly arranged, as it always is in Ishiguro, but this dear-diary prose surely reduces one’s interest.
In that book, the narrator was a strangely brought-up girl (to say the last) whose flat prose steeped the impact of her revelations in a powerful liquor. The ordinariness of her language was a brilliantly calibrated resistance to the horror of her life, which, as I came to see it, was nothing less than the horror of mortality itself. A richer prose would have interfered with our slowly-built comprehension of the experiment in which Kathy was literally a laboratory animal. I thought of Mr Kermode's judgment, which I disagreed with at the time, and still disagree with, as I was thinking about the plain language of The Kite Runner. In Mr Ishiguro's novel, superficial banality masks inconceivable complexity; the perfectly-poised balance of these elements is the beauty of the novel as well as its engine. There is no correspondingly ironic relationship between Mr Hosseini's prose and his story. And there is no virtue in its first-person account. Very few books, in my experience, really profit from first-person narrative; first person point of view, narrated in the third person, gives novelist and reader alike a great deal more to work with. Never Let Me Go is an astonishing exception.
Nothing that I have said... Given the turn of events, The Kite Runner might be excitingly, if illicitly, read as nonfiction. (November 2005)
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