So I’ve already written about how I don’t like The Kite Runner. Reading a novel detailing the most cringe-worthy of events, I didn’t like the fact that I ended up cringing more at the writing than anything else. I was surprised, then, to read A Thousand Splendid Suns a few weeks ago and genuinely enjoy it.
It’s about two women in Afghanistan whose lives become interlaced over the course of four decades. You can extrapolate most of the features of the book from that fact–the pages are littered with beatings, bombings, broken families, abuse, babies, and various traditional ethnic atmospherics including descriptions of grape leaves, bread-making, and tea. It’s not so different from The Kite Runner, but to me it seemed that Khaled Hosseini, who is a doctor by profession and not a writer, improved his craft just a little bit in the four years between his two books. He still has this annoying thing where all his adverbs and adjectives seem like they came out of a kit–”the bleak isolation awaiting her, the murderous loneliness,” “the bone-scorching heat,” “the wide-open skies”–and this tendency towards the sappy generic in his description of the most crazy of things. But it’s better in this one. A little more restrained.
But also, maybe I’ve gotten just a wee bit more compassionate since coming to the Kyrgyz Republic. I have a feeling that being surrounded by Muslim women who got married at fifteen and have to cover their heads while their husbands go visit prostitutes has made me less of a snobby asshole about things, and maybe also about books. Only a few hundred miles from Afghanistan now, I guess this story literally hit closer to home.
Okay, many great things about this book. The Kite Runner is the first book published in English by an author from Afghanistan, which is objectively, undeniably cool. Also cool: it’s become a super popular required reading book in high schools, which obviously is fantastic, as it’s a lot more relevant and engaging than Ethan Frome or any of the over-reduced, over-Sparknoted, over-assigned classics. And The Kite Runner explains a lot of details about Afghanistan’s history that the average high-schooler, or the average person really (including myself) would probably never take the time to look up and understand on their own. And finally, the whole kite thing–there are local kite tournaments that are described in this very lovely, unearthly way–is gorgeous, and it has enough integrity and emotional power on its own that when the full novel-factor is brought in around it (a child rape scene and the phrase “For you, a thousand times over”), you can handle it.
But okay. Sitting as I am in the middle of American comfort and never having experienced danger like this in my life, I know that it’s an incredibly dick move to criticize something like the way Khaled Hosseini writes about baccha (the Turkish/Afghani pederast tradition of keeping a “dance boy” around to wear makeup and women’s clothing and do terrible things). But I don’t know.
Hosseini at parts is very ready to engage our super-Westernized perspective of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and when, for example, he describes a lipsticked young boy saying, “I’m so dirty and full of sin. The bad man and the other two did things to me”–it’s so jarringly Jodi Picoult-ish that it seems as if all the information about Afghanistan that he wove throughout his book has disappeared all of a sudden. Like he’s not describing a circumstance in a specific, dense cultural context but rather just allowing the shock value to come through on the American terms that have made this book such a huge bestseller. And obviously this is a complicated issue, and I don’t mean to talk about abuse like it’s something that should fade into the background of the way it is described by an author, but–”I’m so dirty and full of sin”? Without sentences like these, The Kite Runner could have been real literature rather than a book sold at Starbucks next to Tuesdays with Morrie.