The Mulberry Empire, by Philip Hensher

by Joshua Foust on 7/15/2007 · 6 comments

How does an avid fan of Afghanistan approach a book whose author practically brags in a coda that most of what he wrote is “complete invention”? I suppose it is left to simply judge it on its merits—is the story compelling, the history at least vaguely right, the characters believable? In this, I must dissent from the lavish praise strewn across the book’s cover; far from “Tolstoyan sweep,” I found it rather plodding, and the liberties Hensher took with his characters is simply galling.

Let’s start with his treatment of Charles Masson. His real name was James Lewis, but he adopted the alias when he deserted the Indian army to become a scholar of Afghanistan, traveling from Agra up the Indus into Peshawar, across the Khyber to Kabul, down to Kandahar, then back again. His book made him something of a legend, though his desertion remained a stain on his character.

In Hensher’s view, Masson was a ephebophile, a sodomite in love with young boys of all shades and textures. What’s worse (according the disgust in the text), Masson was a bottom, and enjoyed, to an extent, being raped by a fellow soldier before he deserted. Masson is also a murderer in Hensher’s universe, who cold-bloodedly slit a fellow soldier’s throat before stealing his horse and thundering off into a rather dramatic rainstorm. Though Hensher’s coda includes an apology to Masson’s family, I can’t for the life of me figure out why he made Masson such a despicable character—including his obsessive hatred of Sikunder Burnes, which was for some reason not returned.

Well, it makes sense when you see the role these “comfort boys” (to borrow the Japanese term) played in Hensher’s story. Since Alexander Burnes was the hero of the British, and not a cynical imperial stooge who betrayed the men he respected and admired for the sake of conquest and wealth, he never partook of the young boys supposedly flung at white-skinned visitors. Masson, on the other hand, was consumed with them, going so far as to coach one very beautiful boy named Hassan—which was, strangely, the name of Khaled Hosseini’s own boy-victim of the Taliban in The Kite Runner—in how to betray the British to an angry mob, which resulted in Burnes’ well-publicized hacking to death by an angry mob.

It is all for the sake of narrative simplicity, of course. Burnes must be torn up at betraying a man he admired, for he was a Hero; Masson must be despicable in every way, including his substandard intellect and emotional depth, because he helps to betray the brave British conquerers to the mob.

That’s the big problem with these kinds of historical fiction. They are engrossing, and in Hensher’s defense the book is gloriously well written, but the sheer inescapable mass of inaccurate information simply galls me. I realize it’s like being angry that Braveheart wasn’t true enough to the story, but I actually was angry at that—history itself provides plenty of heroes and villains and conflicts and conflicted people; there is no need to invent them just to simplify them.

Indeed, this is the fatal flaw of Hensher’s work: while trying dearly to be epic, and encompassing the global aspect of Britain’s conquests, he bites off far more than he was willing to chew. Why does he have Burnes father a child before leaving on his final journey? Why follow the boring intricacies of British high society in such slavish detail? Why devote such time to a phantom book editor following Burnes’ spurned paramour? None of this really comes together in the end, save their shared presence at a play of the massacre of the British.

There are interesting bits to be found, as well. The “anthropological interlude,” in which a social scientist living in Kabul in the 1970’s decides to venture into the countryside and stumbles upon the bones of the fleeing British army at Gandamak, was harrowing in the way these tales should be; similarly the tale of the 44th’s tragic retreat from Kabul and its ultimate destruction was absolutely engrossing.

Why, then, must it take hundreds of pages to get there? Burnes’ first journey to Kabul is an essential part of the story. Maybe bits of his reception in London, with the freakish celebrity status, and even the long lavish train of servants on the road to Kabul. That all makes sense. It is the diversions Hensher introduces, I would assume in an attempt to make it feel more epic, that nagged me. Really, they made what would have otherwise been an enjoyable diversion seem laborious and labored; and made me cranky enough to complain about how a piece of historical fiction didn’t hew closely enough to history.

Aside from the pacing and a few quibbles with the plot, this really is a good book. If nothing else, Hensher’s knack for constructing sentences is worth giving it a look, though I would advise my more academic readers to discount his occasional foray into a weird orientalist adulation of Dost Mohammed. But there is one question that was bugging me all the way until the end, a question which was never answered: why was Afghanistan called “The Mulberry Empire?”

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Afghanistanica July 16, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Historical fiction set in Afghanistan? How very Michener.

I guess historical innacuracies in Afghan fiction would be OK for most people. If you wrote historical fiction about the US Civil War you better be on your game on you’re gonna get torn apart. Afghanistan is much safer.

For example, only a total loser grad student would know that the guy who betrayed Burnes to a mob was neither Afghan nor a boy nor named Hassan.

I take back the Michener thing. Michener seldom took real historical figures. At least he used unknown people caught up in historical events instead of distorting real historical figures.
But then again, Michener employed researchers and historians to advise him. I’m guessing Hensher has no such research budget.

PS: Adulation of Dost Mo? How weird.

Afghanistanica July 16, 2007 at 1:38 pm

Mulberry trees/bushes have a long history of cultivation in Afghanistan (yes, I just went to wikipedia).

Nick July 16, 2007 at 4:39 pm

I wonder if is agent said, ‘Hey, Big Phil – anything to do with Afghanland is selling like hotcakes at the mo. Could you whip something up? I might be able to get you on Oprah …’

As it is, the premise of the novel seems more redolent of Gore Vidal than anything – queeny recreations of 19th century history and the like.

beautifulatrocities July 16, 2007 at 6:37 pm

Actually, Vidal’s brilliant series of historical novels are his great achievement (& the reason he’s never been taken seriously by Stockholm, which looks down its nose at mere genre). See also Joyce Carol Oates’ series of historical novels (Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterthurn, & My Heart Laid Bare). Also fun: Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt, about homosexuality & schizophrenia in Cromwell’s New Model Army

Joshua Foust July 16, 2007 at 9:43 pm

I do take some comfort that our professional Afghanistan expert had to look up the significance of the mulberry.

I tend to side more with Nick’s interpretation, though I did pick up this book on BA’s recommendation (he was correct in saying the author is truly a gifted writer). He has yet to steer me to a bad book, and I admit to being unfair judging a book by a non-expert on a topic I happen to know an above-average amount about.

Michael Hancock July 20, 2007 at 12:12 pm

I assume the Mulberry cultivation, if it’s like Uzbekistan, had some connection with the Silk trade and sericulture. I mean, that’s why they have all those mulberry trees lining the streets in south Kazakhstan and through Uzbekistan – they prune them every year for the silk “farmers.”

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