When we first met, my editor at Transworld told me over lunch that her biggest mistake in publishing was turning down The Kite Runner, not because she didn’t love it, but because she ‘didn’t think anyone would be interested in a novel about Afghanistan.’ My copy of Khaled Hosseini’s debut says that over eight million readers disagreed. I have used this anecdote at numerous book talks as an illustration of how in the publishing world, as with movies, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ (William Goldman.) It is now growing apparent how much broader the imaginations of readers are than those of publishers, and the range of subjects they are willing to embrace.
Yesterday, attending a recording for Radio 4’s Bookclub, I was able to ask Hosseini whether he realised that his novel had the potential to expand readers’ world view and pave the way for other authors. Charmingly modest and softly spoken, he explained that he wrote with no intention of publication. He didn’t think that anyone would be interested in reading something so dark and depressing, in which ‘all the good guys die.’ However, he feels that the universal appeal of the book is not its setting but its humanity; its central themes of family, friendship, human weakness and the overriding impulse to be a better person, which he claims has nothing to do with spirituality or religion.
In Afghanistan, kite-flying is not a game; it is a rite of passage. Special strings are firstly coated with a layer of glue, then they are rolled through crushed glass and hung to dry. The finished article gleams in the sunlight. Capable of cutting other kites loose, it also cuts straight through the skin of the kite-flier. As presenter Jim Naughtie remarked, ‘it puts conkers to shame.’ For the author, kite-flying with brothers and cousins is one of his central memories of the country he left in 1976 and would not return to until March 2003, two months after his novel was complete.
Without being autobiographical, as one would expect of a first novel – particularly of one written in the first person – Hosseini has much in common with his protagonist, Amir. They grew up in the same neighbourhood, went to the same school, and came from the same socio-economic background. They shared a love of reading and going to the movies. And they both wrote short stories. Amir became so real to Hosseini that, when he returned to his home country and discovered it had been reduced to a war-zone, he suffered two sets of emotional responses: one for himself and one for his central character. There is little doubt that this is a personal and deeply-felt book.
But further than that, pressed about what was fact and what was fiction, he replied that it is ‘much less interesting to me whether it is factual and much more important whether it reflects a truth.’ This distinction and the desire for authenticity is something I feel highly attuned to.
I found I also shared Hosseini’s spontaneous approach to crafting a novel. He has one big idea, but sets to work knowing that he will probably end up somewhere else. For him, it feels as if he is discovering the story rather than creating it. The story is there all along. He simply has to find it. This is gradual process and not all of the elements come together in the first draft. Hosseini’s Eureka moment – the central fact around which the book pivots – arrived during editing.
The book begins with contrasts; two boys divided by class, religion and ethnic groups. Amir, the son of the household and Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. Boys who, having both lost their mothers, shared a wet nurse, and who, outside school, did everything together, but understood how the positions to which they were born distinguished them. Hosseini knew that to openly acknowledge that ethnic divisions existed would be deeply controversial. At the same time, he felt that it was impossible to write the book without doing so.
So widely read is The Kite Runner that I don’t think I am giving the game away by referring to the rape scene. Hassan trapped in an alley, set upon by three thugs he had previously humiliated while protecting Amir, now refusing to give up the blue kite he had run. And Amir, witnessing the event, not knowing what to do and therefore doing nothing. Pretending it didn’t happen. And then, unable to live with his guilt, manufacturing Hassan’s further fall from grace. It is understandable why Amir could not forgive himself, but an author is usually more sympathetic to one of his characters – a boy – for something he did (or did not do) as a child. Instead, Hosseini – who otherwise appeared to express an understanding that even good people such as Amir’s larger-than-life father Baba have flaws – remained adamant that Amir’s disgrace should have followed him from Afghanistan to America.
The author explained that the rape scene is one example of a scene which represents something bigger than what happens on the page: the rape of a country. Hosseini claims that the view of the majority of Afghans is that the West, who benefitted from the defeat of the Soviet Movement, then abandoned the people to be brutalised by thugs. If Hassan is Afghanistan, Amir, is the West.
Hosseini doesn’t shy away from violent scenes, but he says that by far the most difficult scene for him to write was Amir’s father, Baba’s, death. This hugely charismatic character who had been so respected in his home country, who could not believe that he had produced a son who was so different from him, was diminished in America, reduced to working as a petrol pump attendant, and by cancer. Living in exile had brought father and son closer. It was writing Baba’s emotive final scene that finally caused Hosseini to weep.
The programme is due to be broadcast on Sunday 5 January 2014 (4pm) and the following Thursday 9 January (3.30pm), on Radio 4. It will also be available on ‘i-player’ and podcast.