With Tolstoyan sweep and Dickensian vitality, this epically involving historical novel relates England's tragic adventure in Afghanistan, which began with the triumphant arrival of the Army of the Indus in 1839 and ended three years later in rout and massacre. At the center of The Mulberry Empire" is Alexander Burnes, a Scots explorer who travels to the unfathomably remote kingdom of Afghanistan and first befriends and then reluctantly betrays its wise and impeccably courteous Amir. But he is only one character in a cast that includes ladies and generals, princes and deserters, all brilliantly and sympathetically realized. At once stirring and harrowing, exotic and cautionary, and as vividly colored as a Persian miniature, the result is a tour de force of re-creation and invention.
Hensher's ambitious new novel (his first to be published in the United States) concerns a lesser-known chapter of Afghan history the British occupation of Kabul in 1839. In the mid-1830s, Alexander Burnes, a British officer, became the London sensation du jour after publishing a book on his adventures in the East, including his encounters with the Afghan prince, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. His book roused British interest in Afghanistan, a possible new colony and market. Fearing that the Russians might take Kabul first, the British marched into the city, ousted the Amir, and replaced him with one favored by their ally, the Punjabi king. Though the British troops succeeded and remained encamped outside Kabul for three years, the Afghanis at last attacked and sent 16,000 British troops retreating through the valley of their death: they were ambushed, and only one survived. Adopting a part timeless, part ironic storytelling voice, Hensher follows several characters in this vast tapestry: Burnes, of course, and the Amir, but also Bella Garraway, the woman the Amir courts during his year in London; Charles Masson, a British deserter who finds refuge in Kabul; and Vitkevich, a Wilde-like Russian emissary, among many others. Mastering the light touch necessary for a complex history, Hensher moves easily from realm to realm, though he best captures the vanities of society whether of Britain's "upper few thousand" or Moscow's salons. The shifting focus weakens the drama, but what Hensher loses in tension he makes up for in information. Thus the reader learns Persian has six words for mulberry a holy fruit of Islam and Pushto, uncountable. For the post-modern, post-empire reader, ironies abound, and gently as Hensher tells it, the tale is cautionary: any nation should think twice before unseating a foreign prince.
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October 12, 2003
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Excerpt from The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher
The Amir Dost Mohammed Khan had fifty-four sons. And his favourite among these sons was Akbar. One day Dost Mohammed feared that he was ill, and close to dying, and he called his fifty-four sons to him. They came from the far peaceful corners of the kingdom of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan to the great city he had caused to be built, and as they rode through the country, they were not troubled or threatened. The wisdom and strength of their father made straight roads for them, and the justice he had wrought smoothed their passage.
One after another, his four-and-a-half dozen sons came to the great city of Kabul, and the people of Kabul, seeing that the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan had summoned his sons, turned their dust-filled eyes to the dust in grief. One after another, his sons rode through the wide streets, which were crowded but silent in sorrow. They came to the great palace, and came to the bedchamber of their father, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. And to each he said with kindness, as he came in, that his speed had been that of one driven by the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days. But the great Amir lied, for each had been driven to him by love.
At the end of three days, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan lay in his bed, and looked around at the silent crowd of his sons, and bid them count themselves. The living counted themselves, and then the dead sons, and then the sons to come, who were not yet born, whom Dost Mohammed loved best, said their names, but only to Dost Mohammed in the dark shade raised over his head. He counted them, and there were fifty-three. It seemed to Dost Mohammed that one was missing.
"Great King," the second youngest of the sons said. "Akbar is not yet here. But he must be fast approaching." Dost Mohammed nodded, and the rough cloth of his bed cover seemed to whisper a denial. "That is not so," the youngest of the sons said. "Akbar my brother has sent a message that he will not come. He has sent a message to the great King my father that he is occupied, and may not turn away from the borders of the country, to mop my father's face and hold my father's head." And the brothers looked away in shame that their father should hear the truth.
But Dost Mohammed nodded, and was pleased by what the youngest of the brothers had said. "He has done right," he said, just that. He raised his head, and looked at the sons who were there, and the sons who were dead, and the sons who were not yet born, and the single son who had better things to do, and the Amir was pleased. And the sons--Afzal, and Azam, and Shams-i Jahan, and Ghulam Haidar, and Sher Ali, and Amin, and Sharif, and Akram and Wali and Faiz and Hawa and Hajira and Ahmad and Zaman and Umar and Ummat al-Mustafa and Bibi Zumurrud and Salih and Muhsin and Nur Jahan and Hasan and Husein and Wafa and Aslam and Qasim and Sher and Nek and Hashim and Sadiq and Shuaib and Rahim and Azim and Sadiq and Sarw-i Jahan and Yusuf and Azim and Habibullah and Mamlakat and Sharaf Sultan and Durr Jan and Sahib Sultan and Bibi Saira and Aisha and Bilqis and Sadiq and Rahim and Saifullah Khan Wakil and Agha and Fatima and Zainab and Banu and Mulk-i Jahan and Badr-i Jahan, youngest of the brothers (for it is written that the women who are born to a great Emperor may be considered sons, too)--the sons of the great King looked at him and saw him revive, and start to live again as he heard that everything was well with his kingdom. Glory be on the names of the sons of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, greatest of the Afghans, wisest of his people!