Columns > Published on July 23rd, 2012

Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'The Kite Runner'

An ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun.


Sometimes it’s hard to say why a book becomes a best seller. OK perhaps that is an anodyne observation: if it were easy, the publishing business would be a whole lot more profitable than it is. But sometimes, it’s not so hard. And going a step further, some years it’s pretty obvious why we bought the books we did. Take 2005 for example. The top three sellers of the year were Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, A Million Little Pieces and, in third place, The Kite Runner.

You don’t need to be Madame Arcana with her crystal ball to work out why the first two made the top spots. Half Blood Prince is the sixth book in one of the most popular series of all time ever. No surprise there. Coming second, an Oprah recommended (and soon to be notorious) juicy drink-and-drugs-hell memoir. And in spot three we have a story about two boys, some kites, and a country called Afghanistan.

Not so easy to predict that success. On the face of it, Hosseini’s book has no obvious selling point, yet not only did it make the top three in 2005, it stayed on the bestseller list for the next three years. People bought it, read it, and loved it to a million little pieces.

The Kite Runner caught the popular imagination because it allowed us to learn about one of the world’s troubled places, discover that the Taliban really are a bunch of bad guys, learn a little Farsi, and do it all from the safety of our own armchairs.

What makes The Kite Runner’s stranglehold on the zeitgeist of the early 2000’s all the more puzzling is another simple fact:

The Kite Runner sucks.

And here is why. It sucks because…but no! I’m not going to start there. That would be too easy. First I’m going to run through the criticisms most people make about the book. Then I’m going to tell you what’s really wrong with it. Because the real reason The Kite Runner sucks is exactly the opposite of what you might think. It sucks for exactly the same reason it became so popular.

Even the book’s most fervent fans admit that The Kite Runner has its faults. The plot hinges on the friendship between two boys: Amir, son of an Afghan businessman and Hassan, son of the family servant. Amir (who we are expected to root for) is defended by Hassan, helped by Hassan, then stands by and witnesses his rape. As a result, Amir rejects his friend, pelts him with pomegranates and makes it look as though he is a thief to get him out of his life. Then he leaves for the US. Then, much later, he feels sorry.

That’s the character we’re meant to like. It goes downhill from there. Assef, the villain, is a half-German who says things like ‘If we had let Hitler finish what he started, the world would be a better place.’ Also he enjoys raping smaller boys.

Those are the characters. The social attitudes are just as scary. In The Kite Runner servants embrace the joy of serving others in a way that makes Uncle Tom seem like a firebrand for emancipation. Amir’s wife, Soraya, is emotionally scarred by the fact she had a brief affair before she married. Nobly, Amir forgives her this awful sin, even though it bothers him ‘a bit’ because she’s ‘been’ with a man although he hasn’t ‘taken a woman to bed’. And when Soraya turns out to be infertile, Amir also puts up with this too.  As the fertility specialist they visit says: ‘a man’s plumbing is like his mind: simple, very few surprises. You ladies on the other hand…well, God put a lot of thought into making you.’

Yes. That’s right. Vaginas are very, very complicated.

As for the plot, well, this quote probably sums it up.

"Walking back to the truck, neither one of us commented about what most non-Afghans would have seen as an improbable coincidence, that a beggar on the street would happen to know my mother. Because we both knew that in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul, such absurdity was commonplace."

Presumably if a pink unicorn happened to fly down at that moment and whisk you away, no one would comment on that either, because in Afghanistan such absurdity is commonplace.

Yes, the fans say. The Kite Runner isn’t perfect. It’s badly written, hyperbolic and repetitive, with one-dimensional characters and antiquated social attitudes. But none of those things matter, they conclude. The Kite Runner is saved from suckitude by one simple fact. It’s about Afghanistan.

This is the reason The Kite Runner became so popular. It’s not the boys or the kites or the satisfying yet overworked theme of betrayal and redemption. If this book had been set in Greece, or Brooklyn, or Iceland, there is no way in a month of Sundays it would have become required freshman reading and graced the reading lists of High Schools. The Kite Runner caught the popular imagination because it allowed us to learn about one of the world’s troubled places, discover that the Taliban really are a bunch of bad guys, learn a little Farsi, and do it all from the safety of our own armchairs.  

And this is why it sucks.

Because The Kite Runner is about Afghanistan the same way Kim Kardashian is about natural beauty. No mention here of how Afghanistan was created as a buffer zone by the British against Russia, how the boundaries were drawn in such a way as to weaken certain ethnic groups and therefore virtually guarantee tension for the rest of time. How when the Russians did eventually invade, the Taliban were supported (if not actually created) by the US as a tool against the occupiers - fundamentalist teachings being part of the recruitment campaign.

Nope. None of that. Pre-Russian invasion, the Afghanistan of The Kite Runner is an idyll of pomegranate groves and kite flying competitions. True, the Hazara – the ethnic group from which Amir’s friend Hassan comes – suffer some persecution, but they have rich employers like Amir’s father to keep them safe, so that’s all right. Post-Russian invasion, the country becomes a Middle Eastern hell of public stonings and male brothels. The issue of just how the fundamentalists came to power is neatly skirted by making the entire Taliban regime the work of Amir’s childhood nemesis Assef, a crazed sadist who is only one Sieg Heil away from being a Nazi (and is also gay, the pervert).

Far from being the saving grace of The Kite Runner, Afghanistan is its fatal flaw. The book played a cruel trick on us: it allowed us to feel we were learning something about a tragedy, when really it was presenting us with a revisionist view of history which not only exonerates the guilty, it piles stones on the graves of the dead, in order to hide them from view.

It says a lot about us, that if an author attempted this with any other similar period in history, the outcry would be immediate and deafening. Yet instead The Kite Runner continues to sell and sell.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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