Khaled Hosseini
New York: Riverhead Books, 2003
ISBN # 1-57322-245-3
371 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2006

This is a beautiful and informative story of Amir, an Afghan boy who betrays his closest friend, Hassan, when they are just 12 years old. He lives with this guilt for many years, paying deeply in pain and suffering, always wanting to redeem himself for his betrayal.

Amir is the son of a very successful and wealthy father in Kabul, Afghanistan during the monarchy Zahir Shah who ruled until 1973. Amir’s family lived with servants, Ali and his son, Hassan, who was Amir’s age and his best friend.

Amir and Hassan may have been inseparable but things were not well with them, at least from Amir’s perspective. Class separated the boys as did tribe and religion. Amir was rich and Sunni, Hassan poor and Shi’a. Amir learned from his father’s friends (but from his father) that the Harara tribe to which Ali and Hassan belonged, were inferior people. Yet his father adored Hassan and regarded Ali as his best friend. Amir was deeply jealous of Hassan who had so many characteristics which Amir’s father admired.

Thus when a crisis comes and Hassan is being attack by other Pashtuns boys, members of the privileged Sunni class, Amir not only doesn’t come to Hassan’s aid, but allows him to be brutally abused. His shame is complicated by his own realization that in part he doesn’t help his friend precisely because he is jealous of him as well as being cowardly.

Soon his own shame drives him nearly crazy and in anguish to end his pain, he sets Hassan and his father up for a shame so great they have to leave the home, which will seemingly free Amir of his problem. But this further treachery doesn’t end the shame, but intensifies it.

The tragedy of politics and war in Afghanistan enter into to the picture at this time and Amir and his father must flee Afghanistan to settle in Fremont, California in a neighborhood with a significant Afghan immigrant community. Ali and Hassan had no such options and remained in Afghanistan.

More than 20 years later Rahim Kahn, a dear and close friend of Amir and closest friend of his father, contacts him to come back to Pakistan, where Kahn has taken refuge, and to make his peace with Hassan, proving that he can be a decent person. Kahn knows the things that Amir had done to Hassan.

Amir realizes he has to answer this call, and goes back to redeem himself.

I’ve tried to recount this much of the story without giving away much of the plot. But the story is filled with unexpected twists, suspense, even terror, and an enormous amount of pain and sadness. The tale is brilliantly told and, in the main, quite believable.

Along the way the reader is given a fairly detailed picture of the general pattern of Afghan life and politics in the past 40 years.

Even if these themes of betrayal, guilt and redemption were the only ones in this novel it would still be a great book. Author Khaled Hosseini treats them with power and sensitivity, making us feel the depths of Amir’s weakness and the horror of his acts. But the fact that this is a book set inside Afghan culture and much of it taking place in Afghanistan itself made the book much more powerful for me.

It is so powerful because it points up the basic humanness of us all. Before this novel I had never given Afghanistan much thought, following only the broadest patterns of its political history in the past 20 years. But Hosseini forces us to see the Afghans to be like everyone else – humans, complex, both defined and crippled by tradition, but no more or less so than anyone else. The novel profoundly enriches me in further insight to the unity of the human species, and the struggles, even agony, of going forward in life.

Hassan is almost too decent a human being to be believed. Few fictional characters I’ve ever been convinced by have greater civility than he. Perhaps his only flaw was his excessive servility. I think what makes him “real” for me is the cultural setting, such that even in late 20th century Afghanistan his deference to his “masters” is believable and honorable. But it is precisely this cultural setting which makes the book so rich.

There is a great gulf between Amir and Hassan. Sunni vs Shi’a, rich vs poor, Pashtun vs Hazara, literate vs non-literate. Yet they deeply share the fact of being Afghans. Even this similarity is challenged by a driver in 2001 who is taking Amir back to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 20 years. The driver, a Hazara himself, can’t understand why Amir wants to go back and somewhat angrily accosts him, asking why he is returning. Amir just talks about how he is Afghan and has to go back to see his native land. The driver explodes this view:

In his rearview mirror. I saw something flash in his eyes. “You want to know?” he sneered. “Let me imagine. Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that some gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants. Probably Hararas. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son’s eyes that this is the first time you’ve ever worn a pakol.” He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of premature rotting teeth. “Am I close?”

"Why are you saving these things?” I said.

“Because you wanted to know,” he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path. a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan. Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here. You just didn’t know it.”

I was deeply challenged by this view, which seemed quite accurate. So often it seems to me it is wealth and power which divide people as the primary motivation, but other factors such as race, religion, and in this case, tribal membership are the more easily identifiable factors and where both sides seem to rest their understanding of the divisions. Yet I think the driver is basically correct – the roots are in money and power.

Earlier I mentioned that what set this story apart for me was the revealing of so much of Afghan culture. A few of those moments of the novel stood out to me.

When Amir finally marries and he and his wife try to have children but can’t, even after significant medical intervention, they finally think about adoption. But his wife’s father won’t hear of it and argues:

“Now if you were Americans, it wouldn’t matter. People here marry for love, family name and ancestry never come into the equation. They adopt that way too, as long as the baby is healthy, everyone is happy. But we are Afghans…”

In another place we read: “Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules.” Much in the novel suggests this is a very real and important distinction within that culture.

There is another scene that amazed me when, in California, after living there two years, one day Amir’s father just goes crazy in the local convenience store run by some Vietnamese immigrants. When Amir finally rushes in and calms his father down, apologizes to the people and says he will take his father home and come back to pay for the damages, it turns out the dispute was because for the first time in these two years his father didn’t have the cash and wanted to write a check. However, the proprietor asked for ID. This just set Amir’s father off. The author then reveals that back in Kabul when the family servant Ali would go to the store to by things he would take a stick off the tree and the shop owner would simply make notches in the stick to indicate the various debts and every now and again his father would go in and settled up the debt of the notches. Thus after dealing with these folks for two years he was just outraged to be asked for identification.

We do follow the terrible struggles of the Afghan people from the fall of the monarchy through first the Russian occupation, then control shifting to the coming to power of the Mujahedin only to be followed by the even more brutal Taliban.

The hardships of the Afghan people are revealed in passages of power and brutality and especially the long scene of when Amir and his father are being smuggled out of Afghanistan to Pakistan over the Khyber Pass – an experience which is convincing, vivid, terrifying, and sickening.

This is an exceptional book, a first novel for the author. The book was published three years ago and my copy indicates there is another novel expected in summer 2006. I will be watching to see if this novel is forthcoming.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett