Writing a novel is a political act: narrative voice in “The Kite Runner”

In the foreword to the 10th anniversary edition of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini wrote that “it’s quite an honour when readers tell me that this novel helped put a personal face on Afghanistan for them”. This sentence articulates the central concept of this best-selling novel: the desire to make history human. In many ways, once the “unhappy, chronically troubled, afflicted land” is populated by individual stories, it becomes easier to for the western reader to understand and our sympathy for those living under a dictatorship grows. To “put a personal face on Afghanistan”, Hosseini not only created the highly emotive story of two brothers, but also carefully crafted the narrative voice so that the reader could fully engage with the psychological impact of the historical events covered in the text.

The first aspect of the narrative voice which strikes the reader is its introspective quality. The novel immediately propels us into the narrator’s quest for self-understanding: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve”. This is followed by the rapid succession of grammatically similar phrases: “I remember”, “I’ve learned”, “I realise”. Hosseini deftly signals that this is a bildungsroman about a young man growing to adulthood in the most difficult of circumstances – and if this is a novel about this young man’s increasing understanding of how to behave with integrity in the face of danger, it is also about the readers’ increasing understanding of their own role in this world. Because the first person pronouns in the opening paragraph are balanced with the second person: “it’s wrong what they say about the past”, Amir tells us, “about how you can bury it”. Ostensibly this use of the word “you” is purely colloquial, but on closer inspection it may be a challenge directed at the reader: the novel asks us to reflect on our own inner lives, at the same time as drawing us into an ever stronger emotional engagement with the text.

Writing about the 9/11 attacks in the same year as The Kite Runner was published, Ian McEwan explained that empathy means “to think oneself into the minds of others”. He goes on to write that “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality”. Whilst an appreciation of art does not automatically confer humanity and sympathy, it can help the reader to step outside their own existence and into the life of another. Harper Lee’s character Atticus Finch articulated the same idea: “you never know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk about in them”. This is the fundamental aim of The Kite Runner: that the reader is invited to imagine what it is like to be Amir, a young Pashtun boy, sheltered from the reality of ethnic violence and discrimination by his privileged upbringing, who is eventually able to confront the regime that killed his brother. In some ways, it feels as if the novel should be written from Hassan’s perspective – this would allow Hosseini to give a voice to the voiceless, articulating the anguish of the disenfranchised, marginalised, and abused Hazara population of Afghanistan. However, Hosseini’s selection of Amir as a narrator in a novel packaged for a western market means that a relatively unaware reader can accompany a relatively unaware narrator on his journey towards understanding.* Responsibility is then passed to the reader at the end of the novel, as Hosseini explores the red-tape of the asylum system, as well as the barriers refugees face as they seek to integrate in their new country. The novel seems to pose the question: what can we all do to improve the lives of those around us?

Yet, in an incredibly poignant chapter, we do read Hassan’s words. Hosseini’s depiction of Hassan’s journey to literacy is an extremely important one, as being able to read and write allows the individual to enter more fully into the political world. In the early stages of the novel, Hosseini used Hassan’s illiteracy to communicate the inequalities of Afghan society, in which swathes of the population were denied an education and, therefore, the ability to achieve higher-paid jobs and to represent themselves in government. Amir’s bullying actions towards Hassan in Chapter Four are emblematic of how society uses the power of the written word against those who are denied access to it. So, when Hosseini presents us with Hassan’s letters in Chapter Seventeen, he puts a personal face on a significant social issue. Hassan writes that he wishes Sohrab will grow up to be a “free person”, and literacy is the first step in that journey. This personal story is also a political one – just as Sofia’s collection of books is both personal and politically charged; just as Soraya’s reading of Wuthering Heights is a covert rebellion against gender restrictions; and just as the writing of the novel itself is a political act.

Whilst the verbs in the novel’s opening paragraph are intensely introspective, those on the final page are more dynamic and definite. Watching Sohrab smile, Amir writes “I’ll take it”, “I ran”, “I didn’t care”, “I ran”. This is a shift from the past to the future, from passive to active, from introspection to caring about others. This tentative conclusion is hopeful and open-ended as the novel looks forward to what will hopefully be a better future. However, in the summer of 2021, violence and oppression have returned to the country, meaning that Hosseini’s message of compassion and courage is even more relevant than ever.

*I realise that this is a sweeping statement based on my own initial reading of the novel, and my interactions with friends, family, and students who have also read it.

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