The Power of the Story

Jane Opitz


A few nights ago while flipping stations, I paused on public television.  Across my vision came pictures of Afghanistan-photos and video of countryside and street scenes.  In the streets of modern-day Kabul, I saw the wreckage caused by the last thirty years of war, war with Russia, internal civil war, the Taliban take-over of government, and, recently, liberation by America's war on terrorism.  These pictures of a destroyed city and war-torn land contrasted startlingly with the pictures in my imagination.  And then I saw the rubble of what might have been, thirty years ago, the house about which I had been reading: a house so beautiful that some "thought it was the prettiest house in all of Kabul.  A broad entryway flanked by rose bushes led to the sprawling house of marble floors and wide windows.  Intricate mosaic tiles, handpicked . . . in Isfahan, covered the floors of the four bathrooms.  Gold-stitched tapestries . . . bought in Calcutta, lined the walls; a crystal chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling."  (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner: A Novel, New York: Riverhead Books, 2003)

Then onto my television screen came a photograph of a child-a boy about twelve years old holding a tattered kite.  And I understood that picture.

The Kite Runner is a remarkable story grounded solidly in the Afghanistan of 1975 and of 2002, a story that examines the flash-points of class and race and religion, explores the consequences of secrets left too long untold, offers a study of the places where power and innocence and evil collide.  Yet this is not the story only of Afghanistan; it is the story of good and evil in all places and times, a story in which much that is evil wins but also in which atonement and redemption come-although maybe at too great a cost. 

The story is direct and well told.  The novel begins with the voice of Amir: 

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.  I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek.  That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it.  Because the past claws its way out.  Looking back, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.  

Amir takes us with him as his world changes: we see his act of cowardice, his betrayal of a brother, his escape from Afghanistan with his father, his eventual settling into life in San Francisco, his marriage-and then his dangerous return to Kabul to atone for everything that had happened in that alley and afterward.

The Kite Runner answers powerfully a question posed by this edition of The English Web: What is the impact of reading, language, and literature?  I can speak to the impact of this particular work of fiction on me: because of it, the televised photo of the boy holding a broken kite gave me immediate recognition and made a connection across time and distance to an understanding of something important.  And the way I understand is different, deeper, more heartfelt, less able to be verbalized, than any understanding I might have gained from reading non-fiction or from the television documentary.

It is the nature of written language to expand, condense, refine, sculpt, and script the important stories of our human existence.  As long as we have writers and poets, prophets and dreamers-storytellers-to give shape to the greater truths of our lives and to explain us to ourselves, reading and language and literature will be important.