The Kite Runner and Communism

Not to fear, readers - this post shall not consist of the fusion of my collectivist political philosophy and a hapless piece of modern literature. This is however a bit of a collectivist post, insomuch as it is one of my classic "combo-posts." My tradition has always been three subjects per combo-post, but this morning I guess I'll be a bit of an iconoclast and go with two.

About two and a half hours ago I finished reading Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner. While ruminating over it afterwards - specifically while wiki-ing the word "Lollywood" - I got to thinking about the diversity of languages on the Indian subcontinent. Although one might initially take it as strange that the countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have so many languages spoken within them, the truth is that the diversity really isn't all that strange. Take a similar area of Europe and you'll find a multitude of languages as well. It's just that this diversity is not found as much within national borders - clearly not as much as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The reason of course is that nation-states based on commonalities such as spoken language have a much longer history in Europe than on the Indian subcontinent, and indeed, one might say such states have little to no history in that Asian land of empires at all. This in turn brought me to thinking about another country - another with a very long history, but unlike the nations of Europe and south-central Asia in that it doesn't have such a diversity of language - not comparitively. That was the People's Republic of China.

Now I will be the first person to tell anyone who suggests it that there is not a language to be called "Chinese." I have experienced first-hand (or first-ear) what language diversity China does have through the three years I lived with my parents in Hong Kong. Largely all that I picked up of the language as a child is lost to me, but my parents both remain functional speakers of Cantonese, and they are not at all functional speakers of Mandarin, which many people claim to be the mysterious non-existant language known as "Chinese." Often my parents have spoken of Mandarin and Cantonese (as well as the several other tongues of China) as all being dialects, and this seems to be a standard analysis. I, however, don't think the word does the situation justice. Most of the "dialects" are mutually unintellgible, and in my mind that makes them distinct spoken languages. Wikipedia claims the differences are similar to those between the Romance languages. What's very interesting, however, is that when written, there really is only one Chinese language. My parents have told me about how a businessman from Shanghai and another from Hong Kong may sit down for lunch and not understand any of what the other might say, but the two can pass notes and scribble characters to each other and make everything as clear as day.

What am I getting at here? Little; I'm just giving you fun facts. There are, however, millions and millions of speakers of Cantonese, and there are many people who speak regional languages throughout China. Despite these remaining differences, however, China is still dominated by standard Beijing Mandarin. What is the reason for this? Again, I would draw us to history. A common thread within the Chinese past not found in that of either the Indian or European regions is the presence of a centralized state. Does this sum up the entire difference between these large areas of the world and their comparitive diversity of languages? Not at all! By then, however, I was thinking about something else.

Centralized state... hmm... for some reason my train of thought stayed with China, and in an instant I was thinking about how China's governmental history must have contributed to the longevity of its current regime. What I really thought was something like "It must contribute to the PRC being the longest-lasting communist regime in history." Quite immediately, however, I realized it isn't. The USSR still is. The evil empire lasted nearly a full 69 years, existing from December '22 to December '91. The People's Republic, established in 1949, still has nine more years to go to match the record. So this begs my question: Will it?

Nit-picky arguments regarding the definition of communism aside, (despite the fact that I'd be the one likely to start them), do you think that the Chinese government will last long enough to become become the oldest pseudo-communist authoritarian regime in history? I'd say the likely verdict is that it will. Things do happen, though. We shall see what history is made.


Now that I have fully discussed the second subject in my title first, as is custom, I shall return to the book which sparked me to hop on the thought train for the wild ride seen above. The Kite Runner is a book that has been recommended to me by my girlfriend for quite some time - long before she became my girlfriend, as a matter of fact. It is also a book, however, of which I have heard nothing but negativity from my father - also since long before my girlfried and I began dating. My father's negativity was never overwhelming or all-encompassing, of couse, but several times he made serious anti-recommendations of the work, and when pressed for the reasons why, I was told of the presence of a rape scene as well as extreme cowardice within the book. When I read of these things, of course, they came as no surprise. They did not prevent me, however, from sitting in astounded agreement with my father before I even reached the halfway point.

The fact that I hadn't finished yet, of course, is key. My girlfriend (who shall remain unnamed due to yet another tradition on this blog - one to not mention the names of those in my personal life) is an amazing and voracious reader, and through many of the works of literature I have read on her recommendation, I've learned that according to her taste in reading, the very best authors will have you hating them very much during the course of their novel before giving you a satisfying redemptive ending. Maybe she doesn't hate them at those points when she's reading their novels - but I do.

I won't discuss the plot of the Kite Runner any further, but suffice it to say that it is indeed a grand and epic tragedy. Tragedy and coincidence take such turns after turns, that quite close to the end of the novel (long after I had been the most disgusted with Khaled Hosseini) I reentered my state of dismay simply to be disgusted with how much the novel seemed to deny all realistic liklihood. Despite the twists and turns in my stomach and mood, and despite what never seemed could turn out to be a happy ending turning out to be a somewhat-happy but not-all-that-happy-ending, I still realized that I actually did enjoy the book after all. I realized that the Kite Runner really is a work of literature. It deserves all of the respect that term entails - and its modernity shouldn't detract from that. Literature isn't supposed to be realistic in its coincidences and tragedies, and the fact that a book has gone into the 21st-century American mainstream doesn't mean that it has to give the perfect justice of appropriate retribution or happy ending to all of its characters. Besides these revelations I have little to add to my review - I would only say that when you read the Kite Runner, don't think about justice. Think about quality - and think about universality.

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Maybe you can help me. I'm trying to decide between "The Kite Runner" and "Catch-22" as summer reading for AP Lit next year. Any suggestions?

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  3. 1) 'Pseudo-communist' is right. From Mao to Deng, just collectivised capitalism under a red flag. And that goes for the Russian copyright-holder too:

    'Notre désaccord est total avec ce parti léniniste (trotsko-stalinien) qui dans les faits, a réprimé l’insurrection prolétarienne en Russie et dans le monde, et a aussitôt relancé l’économie capitaliste, liquidant toutes les forces révolutionnaires qui ne reconnaissaient pas l’autorité du Parti bolchevik. A plusieurs reprises, Trotsky a dirigé l’Armée rouge contre les prolétaires insurgés, à Kronstadt, en Ukraine... et nous n’avons que faire de ses leçons de la Commune qu’il tire à l’image de ce que le parti bolchevik a fait de la révolution en Russie. Le prolétariat en Russie s'est affirmé comme force agissante contre la vieille structure du parti bolchevique. La conception léniniste du Parti est à l’image de ce qu’est devenue la Russie, un immense camp de concentration de main d’oeuvre bon marché pour un essor capitaliste inégalé. Expérience terrible et terrifiante qui a scellé plus de 70 ans de contre-révolution menée au nom du communisme et de la révolution, du parti du prolétariat! D’où la difficulté de parler aujourd’hui de la révolution, de la classe prolétaire cherchant à se constituer en parti sans être assimilé à ceux qui ont de l’Internationale Communiste une multinationale représentant les intérêts capitalistes de la Russie dans le monde, et des Partis Communistes les ambassadeurs de la plus grande entreprise de répression de la révolution dans le monde.' (From http://gci-icg.org/books/LaCommunedeParis.pdf .More on the concept of state-capitalism: www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/subject/state-capitalism .)

    2) There are two competing sets of criteria about what constitutes dialect/language, and adoption of the one or the other view has less to do with science than with political program (or 'agenda,' as is darkly said nowadays). So, should local Occitan radio be state-supported? The 'purely linguistic'/static criterion: two mutually unintelligible speech varieties constitute 'different languages'. The opposing 'social'/dynamic criterion involves autonomy vs heteronomy of lects (in relation to a centralising authority), the existence or not of an would-be all inclusive written form, und so weiter. See the discussion of the lects on the two sides of the Dutch/German border in Peter Trudgill's Sociolinguistics, an excellent book. Anyway, even though written in hanography (that is, the quaintly called 'Chinese characters'), Cantonese, and Suzhou vernacular literature are not mutually intelligible, and neither of them is intelligible to a non-speaker of those lects who knows only State Pekinese (i.e. Standard Chinese/Putonghua/Guoyu , i.e the idiotically named 'Mandarin'). However, since literacy is taught only in the standard written form (mostly a form of State Pekinese), the impression is given that ' when written, there really is only one Chinese language'. That's because people are not writing what they speak. (Consider: a speaker of Low German and a speaker of Swiss German writing to one another in Hochdeutch. Or even, medieval Poles and Englishmen writing to one another in Latin.) See the old (1950) but great book by DeFrancis, 'Nationalism and Language Reform in China '.

    3) 'Muslim Uyghurs' (or 'Uyghur Muslims') is often used in the press, but what is the point of it? Uyghurs that are Muslim as opposed to some other kind of Uyghur? What kind?

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    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for pointing out my oversimplification of the Chinese language issue. I am not and likely never will be very deeply informed or articulate about the subject, or about linguistics in general.

      I absolutely agree that these distinctions come down much more to politics than to science. That's why I think it's such a shame that the Chinese state is systematically destroying linguistic diversity, just as have so many other nations. I think political empowerment and linguistic survival go hand in hand: The only way languages like Occitan or Breton might even have a remote chance of resurrection is if France becomes less centralized and the regions concerned have the autonomous capacity (and desire) to revive their linguistic heritage and identity. Valuing linguistic diversity naturally accompanies valuing greater political autonomy. I know a lot of people don't, but I happen to like them both.

      Merci pour votre citation sur le communisme. I enjoyed it. And lastly, I don't see the relevance of what you said about "Muslim Uyghurs." Are you referring to some other potentially redundant term I used in this post?

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  4. Comment number 3 should have been put at http://peterstanton.blogspot.com/2009/06/permanently-blocked-by-conservapedia.html .

    About nine hours ago sent you an email at your gmail address as provided by M#2 of M&M. He was not sure the address is still in use. Email rec'd?

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    1. Yeah that's my main email. Thanks for your message!

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