Every American should read Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (Riverhead, 2003) -- but for its political relevance, not its literary achievement. The novel is set in Afghanistan, which is one of the few countries where recent American foreign policy hasn't been entirely incompetent and disgraceful, so to read it feels reassuring and even patriotic. Inasmuch as we're engaged in a never ending war in Afghanistan, every one of our fellow citizens should have an idea why we're there and what we're doing. It's not at all obvious -- Afghanistan doesn't have a single drop of oil. Americans should know how bad the Taliban was and might become again, and also why we should remain vigilant against any rabid fundamentalist theology --even ones that are nearer to us than Islam.
In The Kite Runner, the conflict between Afghanistan's dominant Pashtuns and the exploited Hazaras reminds us that there are countries that are far more absurdly tribal than our own.
Even though I learned a great deal from this novel, I feel that as a work of art, The Kite Runner is profoundly disappointing. It came highly recommended to me and I set out to fall in love, but it's an overpraised work. It's advertised as written in "hard, spare prose" (I'm quoting from the back-cover blurb), but in fact it's written in prose without any style at all -- and worse still, every paragraph or so there's a sentence that must make a discriminating reader cringe. The novel is very weak in characterization: aside from the autobiographical narrator, there's only one figure of any dimension --Baba-- and all the rest are flat as pancakes. The novelist is particularly bad with women, who are never more than wallpaper. The child Sohrab, in whom so much is invested, speaks an idiom that no living child has ever spoken. Has the author ever had a conversation with a real boy? The plot is filled with obvious contrivances, artificial cliff-hangers, and (goodness gracious!) a climactic fist-fight. And while I appreciate the author's love of his native country, it doesn't seem at all honest to attribute Afghani problems to "Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistanis." In this novel, the Taliban is represented by a character who is half-German, a sociopathic admirer of Hitler, and (we eventually discover) a pervert who preys on little boys. He's a grotesque villain who seems to have wandered into an ostensibly serious novel from a James Bond melodrama. Why can't the author face the fact that the the Taliban are home-grown Afghani fascists? He would have given us a stronger novel if he had done so.