Friday, February 22, 2008

When great stories lead to research projects

I love the experience of reading a story that sparks my curiosity and drives me to find out more about the world in which I live.

After reading Steve Berry's The Templar Legacy last year, I busied myself learning more about the Gnostic and apocryphal early Christian writings.

About a decade ago, Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth set me on a journey to learn more about medieval British history, and Francine Rivers' The Mark of the Lion series sparked an obsession with ancient history (which led to university study and a still unpublished work of historical fiction).

A powerful narrative has a way of opening up the world that non-fiction books can never achieve.

It's one thing to read in history books about the dates, major events and philosophies that shape our thinking.

It's quite another to read about them through the eyes of well-written, empathetic characters. The key is the narrative. It must be authentic. It must be engaging. Shallow characters, wooden dialogue, and melodramatic plots just don't cut it.

I've just read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It had an impact on me on at least two levels.
First and foremost, it was beautifully written human drama.

From Hosseini's website:
Taking us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the present, The Kite Runner is the story of the friendship between two boys growing up in Kabul. Raised in the same household and sharing the same wet nurse, Amir and Hassan nonetheless grow up in different worlds: Amir is the son of a prominent and wealthy man, while Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant, is a Hazara, member of a shunned ethnic minority.

Their intertwined lives, and their fates, reflect the eventual tragedy of the world around them. When the Soviets invade and Amir and his father flee the country for a new life in California, Amir thinks that he has escaped his past. And yet he cannot leave the memory of Hassan behind him.

The Kite Runner is a novel about friendship, betrayal, and the price of loyalty. It is about the bonds between fathers and sons, and the power of their lies.

Secondly, it gave faces and voices to the Afghan people, and heightened my desire to better understand the recent history of that war-torn country.

The real drama is the redemptive journey of Amir, but in taking that journey, the reader gets a glimpse of the impact on Afghanistan after more than three decades of almost continuous conflict: the Soviets against the mujahedin; civil war after the Russian defeat; oppression under Taliban rule, and, almost as a post script, the new era of violence following the events of September 11.

A few years' back I read The Swallows of Kabul, by Yasmina Khadra, which was possibly the bleakest book I've ever read. It captured the horror of life under the Taliban, but it certainly didn't leave me hungry to learn more.

I've been periodically working my way through British war correspondent Robert Fisk's massive tome The great war for civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East, which chronicles the West's relationship with the Arab world, and it's role in the region's ever-shifting geopolitics.

Fisk's opening chapters focus on Afghanistan, starting with the rise of the mujahedin against the Soviet invaders. The book is based on his first-hand experiences in the Middle East, which give it a considerable edge over purely theoretical books. But it wasn't until I read The Kite Runner (written by an Afghani), that the significance of the events he documents hit home; the impact was emotional, not just intellectual.

Hosseini creates a powerful narrative unhindered by sentimentality and populated with complex and deeply flawed characters. It's the human story that stays with the reader (and yes, I'm keen to see the film adaptation), but the backdrop is just as compelling.
And again, I find myself reaching for Fisk, wanting to understand more.

I'm interested to learn about other stories (books, films, whatever) that have had similar impacts.


Daniel said...

I love Whedon and comics!!!
I have copies of all the Gnostic gospels too.
Loved the posts. Sorry this is all the comment I can muster.
We can chat more this Thurs!

Paula Weston said...

Look forward to it!

Bec said...

Hey Paula, if you're interested, I have tagged you on my site for the 7 Random Things meme...somehow I think your seven things could be very interesting...

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I've just purchased Pillars recently and I've got the Kite Runner on my shelf to read too. You're not the only person I know who'd recommend them.

The only thing about your post is that you've left no room for something to get up you about. You're thirst for a good story and your obvious intellectual and emotional curiosity are inspiring.

No curious enough to read ...Dunces though eh?
I'm kidding.

I've also updated my blog with part of my response to your questions. Thanks for your post.