Doris Lessing blows the veil of romanticism off Afghanistan

The Wind Blows Away Our Words, by Doris Lessing. New York: Vintage Books. 171 pp. $5.95, paperback. For too long, books about the Soviet war in Afghanistan have been the preserve of seasoned war correspondents, romantic journalists, and academic specialists. Here, at last, is a monograph that breaks the established mold.

The unlikely mold-breaker is Doris Lessing, the British novelist and poet. Lessing is better known for her belles-lettres than for her work on behalf of Afghanistan's 5 million refugees. So ``The Wind Blows Away Our Words'' comes as a surprise.

Like the writers of previous works on the Afghan resistance, Lessing has as her focal point a question that vexes anyone who follows the conflict: Why has the West turned its back on the Afghans' plight? And like the romantic journalists - that band of adventurers who dash from one third-world conflict to another - Lessing felt impelled to see the Afghan refugees firsthand.

But there the similarity ends.

Lessing shuns the romantics' Rousseau-like tendency to depict the Afghans as models of pre-industrial nobility. She instead shows us the clumsy side of their naivet'e, then surprises us with glimpses of how sophisticated they can be about world affairs. Unlike the war correspondents, she avoids giving the reader ``compassion fatigue.'' Generally she steers clear of anything remotely like an Amnesty International report. Like the academics, she walks the reader through the maze of political faction, personal intrigue, and religious schism that has made the Afghan resistance so hard to understand. But she never mires us in historical minutiae. More important, she never rails against the West's indifference, never assumes the lofty moral tone of a Barbara Tuchman.

Instead, she offers us four ``documents relating to the Afghan resistance.''

Part One is an evocative discussion about the world's Cassandras - and why mankind repeatedly ignores their bleak prophecies. The style here fits the subject: epic rhetoric (complete with Homeric epithets and images) describes calamities of epic proportions. Lessing casts her net wide, hauling in a catch that includes the fall of Troy, the disaster at Chernobyl, Earth's overdue Ice Age, and the 29 million people who died in the forgotten flu epidemic of 1918-20. This puts the Soviet war in an unusually broad context.

Part Two, the book's biggest chunk, takes a more familiar form. It's a discursive journal of a trip that Lessing and other people associated with the London-based Afghan Relief organization took to Pakistan in September 1986, to see the Afghan refugee camps. Here we get second- and third-hand accounts of the war as described by mullahs, mujahideen (as the guerrillas call themselves), and refugees.

But Lessing laces these one-sided reports together with telling observations and historical parallels - parallels to modern Britain, white-ruled Rhodesia, and the Russia of Catherine. This, too, goes against most books on Afghanistan, which treat the Afghans as a breed apart, a species so tough and courageous that it hardly seems human.

Then, in Part Three, Lessing hits us with a bucket of cold water. Here we read two brief reports about an Afghan woman who was imprisoned and tortured by Khad, Kabul's secret police. Thanks to Lessing's selectivity and placement, this one case study packs a far bigger punch than do scores of such reports recounted in other books.

In Part Four, her conclusion, Lessing does not sit in judgment. Contrary to the publisher's press releases, this is not a ``searing indictment of Western indifference.'' Instead, Lessing portrays our lack of interest as a psychological quirk. This sets her apart from every other book on the subject. She does not moralize or condemn; she explains and analyzes. Guilt, she seems to say, is not the issue; the mind's desire to simplify, simplify, simplify is.

James Pressley is on the Monitor's World Edition staff.

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