On Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner”

One of the things that struck me about The Kite Runner was how it forced apart two layers of identity: ethnic identity and human identity. On the ethnic level, the differences between Afghan and Western social practices became more concrete than ever. We always knew of cultural differences, but the Western reader, after bonding so intimately with the narrator (Amir), is struck by how even in California he accepts that he will marry Soraya without ever having kissed her or seen her alone. Moreover, women are eerily absent from the first third of the novel, which takes place in Afghanistan, and male bonding remains disproportionately (from the Western vantage point) the paste of Afghan society, even in diaspora.

And yet, underneath the ethnic layer of identity, Amir shows the universal humanity that binds us all.  He plays with his childhood friends much like we do, gets into mischief, questions what he hears in school, what he hears at home, his religion, worries about how to find a job, a spouse, a place in life. Most of all, he struggles with the enormous anxiety that comes with the gap between acquiring moral knowledge and having the strength to live up to that knowledge. This breach between moral knowledge and moral strength knows no ethnicity. It is part of the deep structure of coming-of-age. It may the struggle that brings us to adulthood, as in Dickens’s Great Expectations. Or it may be, as in The Kite Runner, that coming-of-age is the moment in which that moral breach opens, and our subsequent lives are all about trying to close it. Or it may be the breach that marks an entire society in transition, as in Ngugi’s Kenya in A Grain of Wheat. In any event, the tearing open of that breach between moral knowledge and moral strength is the fall of Adam and Eve, the kiss of Judas, the dilemma of Hamlet, all sprung from the same conflict deep within the collective unconscious.

So those are my two first impressions of the book: (1) how it highlights the difference between the level of ethnic identity, whose hard differences might variously be cause for celebration or alarm, and human identity, which we all share in equally regardless of ethnicity (or race or gender, etc.); and (2) how it makes concrete once again and in its own way the archetypal inner struggle between moral knowledge and moral strength.

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