The Unbearable Kite Upstairs


Alberto Rivera

Modes of Analysis

D. Brunt

The Unbearable Kite Upstairs

January 7, 2010


The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera are three novels written by three foreign-born authors about three different foreign lands. They all have love stories. They all have war stories. Yet and still, they could not be more different. I will discuss some of the major themes of these three internationally recognized books, and compare and contrast their descriptions of war. Their works are heralded around the world for good reason, and war is one common theme these three novelists explore, albeit in different ways. Let us begin in South America.

The Dancer Upstairs is set in Peru. A major theme I find in this book is that of return. The book begins with Dyer being recalled to his paper’s home office. He must return to his dead wife’s homeland, Brazil, to pursue his final lead. Rejas must return to his hometown in order to find Ezequiel. Without this return, he may not have found him. His daughter, Laura, changes classes from classical ballet. Though she takes up modern dance, she ends up dancing to and playing the traditional music of the indigenous people of Peru. It is a return to her own roots, as Rejas is an Indian.

There is another great example of this theme of return. Late in the novel, Dyer realizes why he was entrusted with the policeman’s story: “Rejas had confessed to him for a reason – because Dyer was still capable of doing things that he could no longer do for himself. With Rejas’s story, Dyer had the power to give Yolanda back the light.” (Shakespeare, 266-7) It is the promise of this return which gives the reader a sense of hope as the book closes and Dyer begins his novel.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is full of powerful themes. One of the strongest is that of guilt, forgiveness and the search for redemption. Amir is plagued with guilt about his treatment of Hassan. When he discovers Hassan was his brother, he feels it all the more strongly. Soraya seeks Amir’s forgiveness before they marry because she had previously taken a lover. Returning from her cousin’s wedding, she breaks down and reveals her continued struggle with the pain of her decisions as a youth. She feels redeemed by her good fortune in finding Amir. The general awaits the end of the occupation to return to his former glory as a statesman. Even Assef speaks of forgiveness in the alley – before he rapes Hassan.

Amir’s search for redemption takes him back home to Kabul. He believes the only way to right the wrongs he committed against Hassan and Ali is to save Sohrab from the life of an orphan. Amir remembers his conversation with Rahim Khan: “There is a way to be good again, he’d said. A way to end the cycle. With a little boy. An orphan. Hassan’s son. Somewhere in Kabul.” (Hosseini, 226-7)

This brings up a connected theme which runs through The Kite Runner: good and evil. Hosseini creates two nearly stereotypical characters who are polar opposites. Hassan represents a very pure good, while Assef is a character embodying evil. I find the choice to have such one-sided characters questionable, but Hassan’s nearly unconditional love for Amir is extremely moving and inspiring. Hassan is incredibly noble, and is deservedly referred to as a lamb at several points in The Kite Runner.

Assef is just a malignant caricature, in many ways. The archetypical villain, he is murderous, a rapist, sadomasochistic, a member of the Taliban, a fan of Hitler and a pedophile. He also probably leaves the toilet seat up.

Another very important theme in The Kite Runner is Afghani family structure and culture. Throughout the book, Afghani customs, cuisine and language are lovingly detailed and shared by Hosseini. Later, there are several instances where the author creates scenes highlighting how Afghani family and culture adjusts to life in America. Among them, the shattering of the storekeeper’s window by Baba highlights the challenges which many people face in adjusting to a new culture. Baba, besides being a man of great pride, came from a place where the baker marked a tree branch to denote how much naan he was owed for. Thus, when Mr. Nyugen asks for identification with a payment by check even though the men had known each other a couple of years, Baba is deeply offended. Hosseini also shows how immigrants to America preserve their long held traditions and honor their proud histories.

Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is, in part, a rather traditional and heartwarming love story. Intrigues, infidelities, and incomprehensibilities abound. However, as the book ends, there is a simple and pure love which reveals itself between Tomas and Tereza.

Interestingly enough, this love is difficult to see mutually manifested throughout the whole work. Tomas inflicts such pain on Tereza through his infidelities it is a stretch to call his feeling for her love. Certainly, they were almost inexorably drawn to each other, but beyond the fact that they kept returning to each other, there was little evidence of real regard, tenderness, or respect on Tomas’ part. Tomas brought Karenin home to help him “cope” with his wife. He was flagrantly unfaithful to her, and eventually even stopped trying to hide his affairs.

Tereza’s love for Tomas was easier to see. She was deeply wounded by his philandering ways, and her dream world assaulted her with visions of being murdered by Tomas. The intensity of her nightmares speaks to the depth of her feeling for Tomas. Hers was a longsuffering love. Tereza even entertained thoughts of becoming a part of his affairs by tending to his partners, and sought out friendship with Sabina even after discovering she was one of Tomas’ mistresses. Though she too was unfaithful, her dedication to and love for Tomas are plain as day.

However, in the end, we do see growth on Tomas’ part. Where earlier in the story Tereza’s dance with his colleague threw Tomas into a fit of jealous rage, the novel closes with Tereza and Tomas going out dancing with others without incident. Tereza can feel his love: “She had summoned him to follow her as if wishing to test him again and again, to test his love for her; she had summoned persistently, and here he was.” (Kundera, 310)

The major theme in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, however, is an exploration of duality, especially those of lightness versus weight and strength versus weakness. Kundera does not provide any answers on which of these is to held in higher esteem, nor does he make any judgments about the matter. He simply presents both sides of the coin, even within single characters. The reader is left without any easy, pat answers, but certainly with a better grasp of how mutable people and relational dynamics can be. He describes the perspectives of different characters in relationship at various points in the novel, and as the story unfolds like postmodern origami, we become less sure of which pole belongs to which person. It is a very interesting and ambitious undertaking.

Each of these novels has a distinct character and style. The major theme in common between these three works is the horror of war. The Kite Runner deals with the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and goes on to relate the harsh realities of a broken country being held in the grip of the Taliban. The Unbearable Lightness of Being tells the story of another victim of Russian imperialism: Czechoslovakia. The Dancer Upstairs fictionalizes the insurgency of El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) in Peru. All three authors’ characters change as a result of the conflicts taking place in their home countries.

Hosseini’s book is graphic and frightening in its account. The author details Baba and Amir’s flight as refugees from their home without any niceties or varnish. The descriptions of the roads, the fate of Ali, the need to wear a false beard in order to travel safely – all these are details which make the state of affairs in the post-Russian occupation Afghanistan all too real. We return to Amir’s childhood home in Afghanistan a couple of times, and see it transformed from a place where two brothers grew up together to a shell of its former state. The same could be said of Afghanistan, where war still rages today.

The changes Hosseini’s characters go through are relatively predictable. It makes sense that the lamb, Hassan, would be a martyr of the Afghani infighting following the retreat of Russian forces. It is also no surprise with whom Aseef ended up casting his lot. Amir and Soraya’s families are among the many refugees who are forced to flee their homeland as a result of the fighting. The tragic fall of Afghani society following all the unrest of the Russian invasion is one of the saddest transformations in The Kite Runner.

Shakespeare’s account of Peru’s problems, while graphic, is not as visceral as Hosseini’s. What I see in his work is a blurring of the lines between good and evil. He does not draw a distinction between murder at the hands of the state or at the hands of rebels: it remains the taking of innocent lives. In fact, both the murder of a troupe of student actors and the rape of an old woman by three men are acts perpetrated by the military. None of the violence in The Dancer Upstairs is justified by Shakespeare – in fact, violence itself, in any form, is frowned upon by the author. Rejas risks his career to prevent the murder of Ezequiel at the hands of military personnel. In my reading of The Dancer Upstairs, Shakespeare even treats the solitary confinement of Yolanda as another hellish, senseless act of violence, which I applaud.

In The Dancer Upstairs, the players change a result of the raging war, but war serves more as a vehicle to allow the parties on either side of the conflict to dialogue and present their positions to each other. Santiago and Rejas have a very meaningful discussion in La Posta about the philosophy behind their stances. There, Santiago’s – and, by extension, Ezequiel’s – position is exposed as a perversion of Kantian philosophy. Rejas and Yolanda also have several encounters where they discuss the insurgency. Here, however, the conversation serves to humanize the struggle for justice and equality pursued by the freedom fighters.

Kundera, to my mind, did not really explore the war itself as deeply as Hosseini or Shakespeare. His discussion of Dubcek’s transformation after his kidnapping was very sad, but he mainly offers visuals of tanks and soldiers, without delving into the terrible aspects of war. It is the psychological war for the people’s minds which riles Kundera: the interrogations, the surveillance and slandering of Czech expatriates over commandeered airwaves, the assassinations of character directed at the prominent Czech nationals who remained. Kundera also paints the expatriates as very impotent, and not so different from the totalitarian Russians.

The characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being are affected differently by the onset of war. Sabina becomes quite successful as an artist, gladly benefiting from her status as a cause célèbre. Tomas is also able to profit, in a sense. He finds a position in Switzerland where he can continue to practice medicine. Tereza, though, is brought to life by the opportunity to chronicle the injustices against her people. Though their life is turned upside down by the invasion, Tereza finds purpose in her life, and takes up photography in the midst of an occupation. Her talent is obvious and extraordinary, based on the fights between Western journalists which would break out over her rolls of film. The war, however, has long, lasting effects on the Czech people.

Tomas is forced to make a decision: recant his insignificant letter to the editor, or lose his status in Russian Czechoslovakia. He must go lower and lower in society simply to live without the harassment of the authorities. Czech heroes continue to be undermined and destroyed by a regime bent on breaking the spirit of their people. War is, indeed, hell.

In conclusion, we can see that war can be used as a major player in a work of art (as in The Kite Runner), a backdrop for the resultant change of individuals or groups (Being), or a literary device allowing opposing viewpoints to air their differences and reveal their commonalities (Dancer). I found Hosseini’s account of war appropriately horrific (and, I pray, chastening to its readers). Kundera highlights the “fallout” from war and imperialism, the toll it can take on people and the road to perdition it leads us down. Shakespeare paints both sides of a war in the same colors. I believe violence is a system of control trapping its proponents in a cage smaller than Yolanda’s, and its glorification does not serve us or our youth. After reading these three books with an eye to the author’s writings on war, I believe many people would begin to advocate for pacifism. It would be a gorgeous sight to see.


Works Cited


Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.


Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1984.


Shakespeare, Nicholas. The Dancer Upstairs. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.





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