A report by Caleb Sivyer on the first BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 19 Nov 2015: a “dark listening” of Emile Zola’s turgid tale of sexuality and insanity, La Bête humaine.
In Afghanistan, you don’t understand yourself solely as an individual,” he says. “You understand yourself as a son, a brother, a cousin to somebody, an uncle to somebody. You are part of something bigger than yourself. The things that happen within families … I’m so fascinated by how people destroy each other and love each other.—Khaled Hosseini in a 2013 Guardian interview.
His blue eyes flicked to Hassan. “Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns. It always has been, always will be. We are the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not this Flat-Nose here. His people pollute our homeland, our watan. They dirty our blood.” He made a sweeping, grandiose gesture with his hands. “Afghanistan for Pashtuns, I say. That’s my vision.”Assef shifted his gaze to me again. He looked like someone coming out of a good dream. “Too late for Hitler,” he said. “But not for us.”—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003), ch. 5
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
Our second BookTalk event marks Human Rights Day by focusing on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling debut novel, a poignant story of friendship, war and redemption.
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