The Kite Runner has sold an astonishing 1.25 million copies in paperback, driven by word-of-mouth at a moment when sales of fiction are reportedly at a low. Scores of municipalities selected it for their Community Reads programs, citing its “universal” themes. Laura Bush called it “really great.” As the months have passed, America has only grown more passionate about its merits. So here’s the mystery: Why have Americans, who traditionally avoid foreign literature like the plague, made The Kite Runner into a cultural touchstone? What version of life abroad is it that seems so palatable and approachable to us? Why The Kite Runner and not any of the other books about Afghanistan that have recently hit the shelves?
I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came and changed everything. And made me what I am today.—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003), ch. 1
But by now every telegraph bell along the line was ringing, and every heart beat faster at the news of this ghost train that had just been seen passing through Rouen and Sotteville. People were afraid: there was an express travelling further up the line, it would surely be caught. Like a wild boar charging through a forest, the train continued on its way, oblivious to red signals and detonators alike. At Oissel it nearly collided with a pilot-engine; it brought terror to Pont-de-l’Arche, for its speed showed no sign of slackening. Once more it vanished, and on it raced, onward and onward into the dark night, bound they know not where, simply onward. What did it matter what victims it crushed in its path! Was it not, after all heading into the future, heedless of the blood that was spilled?— Émile Zola, La Bête humaine (1890), ch. 12
In the frenzy of his desire to have her, and excited by her caresses, Jacques, having no other weapon, was already stretching out his fingers to strangle Severine when she herself, from habit, turned and put out the lamp. Then he took her, and they lay together. It was one of their most passionate nights of love, and best of all, the only time when they had felt completely merged together, completely obliterated each in the other.— Émile Zola, La Bête humaine (1890), ch. 11
Left on his own, Jacques remained where he was and continued to gaze at the still, slumped heap, which appeared no more than a blurred mass in the dim lamplight cast along the ground. And the inner agitation that had quickened his steps, the horrible fascination that kept him standing there, culminated in one piercing insight that burst from the depths of his being: that man, the one he’d seen with the knife in his fist, he had dared! that man had travelled the distance of his desire, that man had killed! Oh! to stop being a coward, to have the satisfaction at last, to plunge the knife in! And what about him, who’d spent the last ten years desperately wanting to do just that! There was, in the midst of his fevered interest, a measure of self-contempt, of admiration for the other man, and above all the need to see the thing for himself, an unquenchable thirst to drink in the spectacle of the tatter of humanity, the broken puppet, the limp rag, to which a living creature is reduced by the mere stab of a knife. What he only dreamt about that other man had done, and there it was. If he were to kill, that’s what would be lying on the ground. His pulse raced madly, and his violent itch to kill grew fiercer, like a sexual urge, at the sight of this sorry corpse. He took a step forward, drew closer, like a nervous child coming to terms with its fears. Yes! He would dare, he too would dare!— Émile Zola, La Bête humaine (1890), ch. 2