Where It All Goes Down
Kabul, Afghanistan 1963-1981; Fremont, California; Kabul, Afghanistan 2001
The Kite Runner spans multiple countries and multiple decades, but at its center is Afghanistan. Even when the novel shifts settings to the United States, Hosseini describes (in loving detail) the burgeoning Afghan-American community.
The novel begins – for all intents and purposes – with Amir's birth in 1963. Afghanistan is a vastly different country, since it hasn't yet undergone years of warfare. In fact, Kabul is relatively liberal and Western. Baba, Amir's father, drives a "black Ford Mustang – a car that drew envious looks everywhere because it was the same car Steve McQueen had driven in Bullitt, a film that played in one theater for six months" (4.10). Things change, however, in the late '70s. The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, beginning a long period of violence, distrust, and instability.
Our protagonist does what any sane person would do: he leaves. Amir and Baba sneak across the border into Pakistan and catch a flight to America. The middle of the novel takes place in Fremont, California. This setting in many ways is a place of exile. This section struck us as the most realistically rendered. Hosseini provides us with moving portraits of displaced Afghans: Baba, who works all hours in a gas station; Amir, who adapts rather easily; and the Taheris, who uphold traditional values with all the stringency and vigor typical of displaced communities. Amid the piles of junk at the flea market, Afghans gossip and recall their homeland while drinking Coca-Cola and coffee.
The final third of the novel describes Amir's return to a decimated Afghanistan. The Soviets, Afghan warlords, and the Taliban have turned Amir's country into a bona-fide mess. One paragraph begins rather simply with this sentence: "Rubble and beggars" (20.11). That about says it. There are smashed Coca-Cola signs, beggars selling their prosthetic limbs, orphans, and a general lack of infrastructure. Hosseini also presents the Taliban as a terrifying combo of religious fanaticism and violent opportunism.
The book, really, is unique in its ability to portray lots of layered settings: American values in Kabul, Afghan values in America, and the disruption in Afghanistan – through war – of such a fascinating cross-cultural exchange.