There are defining moments or events in life that stay with the individual into adulthood. We often try to forget things that make us feel guilt or anxiety but we never really lose the impact they have made on us or who we become. The Kite Runner is a confronting story about two boys whose lives are shaped by the political and social imbalances that existed in Afghanistan during the 1970s. It is a story that highlights the danger of hiding behind lies and putting one’s own needs ahead of another human being’s welfare and rights.
Amir, the main character and narrator begins his story of redemption by indicating that all attempts to forget the past have failed. Amir is forced to reflect on his troubled childhood and past mistakes, things that he has tried to forget. When he finally learns the truth about his past, Amir is compelled to confront his fears and take control over his life. He chooses to deal with the ‘monster’ that has clawed its way out to once again to destroy someone close to him. The novel begins with Amir the adult, receiving a phone call from someone from his past, informing him that ‘there is a way to be good again’.
From the very start, the reader knows that Amir has done something wrong in the past and the indication of twenty-six years, accentuates just how significant this past event was. Amir later refers to this defining event as ‘my past of unatoned sins’, also suggesting that this moment led to additional ‘sins’ requiring expiation or making amends for harm to others. Therefore, the book begins with the premise that you cannot avoid the past, particularly if you have done something morally wrong; and that it is only a matter of time before you are made accountable for what you have done wrong.
We later learn that the phone call to Amir was from Rahim Khan, who was perhaps the greatest support to Amir through his troubled childhood. Rahim Khan is also the keeper of the truth and the one who knows the sins of all involved in this story; and it is he who calls Amir back to Afghanistan to face what he has been responsible for and to try and attempt to rectify the horrifying consequences of the past. When we learn that Amir witnessed Hassan being raped in the deserted alley and did not take action, we understand that the impact of this traumatic event defined the course of his life and consequently, cemented Hassan and Sohrab’s fate.
Amir attempts to bury this event, lying to hide his cowardice from his father, leading to a lifetime of cover ups and guilt over what he should have done. When Amir says ‘that the past continues to claw its way out’, he understands that as much as he tried to bury the past, he was unable to. Amir’s feelings of guilt are a continual presence in his life, the images of dark stains on snow or discarded brown cord pants, symbolise Hassan’s rape and are triggered easily for Amir. He figuratively continues ‘peeking into that deserted alley’, viewing Assef’s violation of Hassan, as he keeps going over the events in his mind.
The horror of this betrayal is compounded when Amir hides his watch and accuses Hassan of stealing it, resulting in the end of their friendship, as well as the end of the relationships between Baba, Ali and Hassan forever. Hassan keeps his silence about Amir’s actions, showing loyalty to his friend (and brother) till the end – and this too is something that Amir must live with. The attempt at forging a close relationship with Baba, is soon realised as unachievable and Amir is left with the emptiness and loneliness of someone who cannot share his shame with anyone.
Furthermore, when Amir finally returns to face Rahim Khan who he realises has known the truth all along, he is provided the opportunity to finally discuss the impact of these shameful secrets. He soon learns that there are additional secrets from the past that have come back to shape his life. He learns that Hassan has been killed defending his old house, a symbol of the past life the two had shared together. He also learns that Hassan was his half-brother, who has produced a son called Sohrab, the name representing the favourite story that Amir would read to Hassan.
These revelations are painful, as they conjure the beauty of what existed in the past and highlight how much both men have actually lost. Amir says ‘the memory lived in me, a perfectly encapsulated morsel of a good past, a brushstroke of colour on the gray, barren canvas that our lives had become’, indicating that although the past is incredibly painful to revisit, it was also something to treasure and Amir is unable to eradicate the bad but fortunately, what was sacred about his past with Hassan is also still there.
Rahim Khan represents morality and the voice of reasoning, something that Amir has been missing and he appeals to this ‘memory’ to get Amir to help him find Sohrab. It is this aspect of the past that Rahim Khan utilises, so that ‘guilt leads to good’, enabling Amir to confront his past while giving him something at the same time that was positive to hold onto. Amir realises that he was the ‘monster in the lake’ of his prophetic dream, responsible for the destruction of the innocent child Hassan and the death of the adult Hassan.
Returning to Afghanistan shows him that although he tried to make a new life in America, becoming a respectable member of society, Amir continued to hide his past, especially from his wife Soraya. Ultimately Amir ran away from who he was and what he had done and Rahim Khan forces him to deal with the long term consequences of his actions. Amir reflects, ‘my entire life…had been a cycle of lies, betrayals, and secrets’ but he is not entirely to blame though, as he learns that Baba, the father who he had thought was morally beyond reproach, had been responsible for lies and betrayal as well – ‘like father, like son. Amir reflects that ‘fifteen years after I’d buried him, I was learning that Baba had been a thief. And a thief of the worst kind, because the things he’d stolen had been sacred: from me the right to know I had a brother, from Hassan his identity, and from Ali his honour. ’
Again the past had ‘clawed its way out again’. Ironically it is Baba who recognises that past events determine future outcomes, when he evaluates the flawed character of Amir and claims , ‘A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything. This statement further validates the claim that the past continually influences present and future events, reemerging through the journey of life. During his quest to find Sohrab (his nephew), Amir learns that a Taliban figurehead has taken him as a sex slave, which is once again a repeat of the past. Amir chooses to risk his life in the hope that he can get him back and discovers that Assef, the evil from his past is the one who is holding Sohrab captive and is abusing him in the same way he abused Hassan. This is yet again another example of how the past, if not dealt with, can be epeated.
Assef is a sociopath, a repeat offender of violating the human rights of others and abusing his position of power. He represents the evil in the world that should be resisted or dealt with, or it simply becomes more powerful and will poison other people. Amir did not stand up to him in the past and consequently his vendetta against Amir and Hassan was directed at Sohrab – an innocent child. Amir has the opportunity to do what he did not in the past and stand up to this evil.
I the past Assef had said, ‘this isn’t the end for you either Amir. Someday I’ll make you face me one on one. Like a monster from a nightmare, Assef is the beast that claws his way out of Amir’s past but this time he stands up to him. The beating Amir cowardly avoided in the past is now experienced and he atones for past wrongs; but Amir is only saved when Sohrab shoots Assef in the eye with a slingshot. Again this is a link to the past, when Hassan had saved him from Assef, when they were children – also using a slingshot. This is one of many parallels in this story that emphasise that the past has a way of repeating itself until people do the right thing.
There are many references to the past in The Kite Runner, warning us about the devastating effects of social inequality, power abuse and corruption in society; as well as a message about how to move forward in a more positive way. Amir moves to America, the Westernised world and tries to forget the past but he cannot. He says, ‘America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far.
Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins. ’ Amir chooses to put the poverty and conflict in his country behind him, made more obvious when he is referred to as a ‘tourist in his own country’. He only develops a true social conscience through his experiences and understanding of the devastating effects of social inequality or how an abuse of power affected Hassan and Sohrab. References to Hitler are linked to the character of Assef and the reader is led to believe that there have been many examples of social injustice in the past.
The Kite Runner reflects the negativity that has been present in all past societies, such as: racism, sexism, religious fanaticism, opportunism and totalitarianism. The end of the novel appears to be some kind of a resolution but we are left feeling that the past will still influence the remaining characters. Amir will still continue to experience guilt about the past, Sohrab will never get over his past abuse and Soraya will have no choice but to support two people unable to completely put the past behind them.
However, the ending has a positive message as they all move forward together and ‘end the cycle’, breaking past limitations and preserving what was ‘good’ about their culture. The novel The Kite Runner operates on many levels and highlights the notion that by not doing everything possible to save the innocent or the oppressed of the world from the effects of abuse and evil, we run the risk of living a life of guilt, regret and eventually repeated injustice and power imbalances.
Amir represents anyone who has ever betrayed a friend or family member to serve their own interests; although he was a child influenced by the dysfunctional relationship with his father, he still made a choice to be a bystander and do nothing, run away and try to forget and then lie to hide his weaknesses – and the past does catch up with him. Amir ultimately must live with himself and his conscience. He tries to bury the past and it does ‘claw’ its way back to attack him and it is a greater monster when the long term consequences of that one unchecked action occur.
Amir tries to bury his past relationship with Hassan and in the end this is the ‘brush stroke of colour’ that becomes the most meaningful to him and drives him to save Sohrab and honour the ‘kinship that not even time could break’. You cannot bury the past, as it serves as a reminder about how you became the person you became and in the case of Amir, the past enabled him to work towards becoming the person he wanted to be – someone who displayed the selfless qualities of his friend Hassan. ‘For you a thousand times over. ’