Where angels fear to tread – and Western armies, too

It's not easy to replace an Afghan amir who has 51 warrior sons

Even before we reach the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while US soldiers are still engaged in Afghanistan, we're already reading an enormous new novel about the West's efforts to change the leadership in Kabul.

But it isn't so much a matter of speed as coincidence. Philip Hensher's "The Mulberry Empire" is déjà vu all over again. His swirling historical novel takes us back to 1839, when 50,000 British troops marched into Kabul to replace the amir with the exiled Afghan king, a man they hoped would be friendlier to their interests. Let's hope the parallels stop there. Three years after they entered, only one British soldier emerged alive.

Afghanistan remains a vast, incongruent, unconquerable place, like Hensher's novel. Though it appeared last week on the BookerPrize "long list," there's debate about what it is exactly. A reviewer in TheGuardian claims that Hensher spoke of it as a parody or "pastiche" while lecturing in Cambridge. But the American publisher is promoting it as a timely historical epic, a sweeping drama in the tradition of E.M. Forster. That's not a surprising approach. In marketing terms, using the word "pastiche" is the equivalent of wearing a "Kick Me" sign.

In any event, this confusion could give it an edge with the Booker: No one knew what to do with Margaret Atwood's weird blending of romance and science fiction in "TheBlindAssassin," so they gave her the prize in 2000.

But readers expecting an epic war novel should adjust their sights. "The Mulberry Empire" is full of riches, but it's about the infamous Afghan battle the way "Romeo and Juliet" is about suicide. It's there, in all its terror and biblical proportions, but only in the last few of these 500 pages.

And there's really not much romance here either. When the unmarried heroine gets pregnant, she and I were equally surprised. Emotionally, the book's as arid as the Afghan desert. Romantic relationships are either thwarted by circumstance or pushed into the margins of the story.

On the other hand, it's a treasure trove of stereotypes about gays – running from the self-loathing homosexual, to the sadistic homosexual, and finally, rounding out the collection with the pedophiliac homosexual.

Most – practically all – of this long story concerns the impossibly foreign societies in London and Kabul, re-created in all their remarkable splendor and awesome consumption. Our guide through both these capitals is Alexander Burnes, a British explorer who befriends the amir of Kabul. The white sheets that swirl around his exotic palace reflect the amir's deceptively tranquil manner, a bright demeanor that his friends and enemies know disguises a deadly perceptive strategist.

When Burnes returns home, his lavish, somewhat condescending description of the Afghans spreads like a contagion through London society, becoming a publishing sensation that places him at the head table of a hundred ornate dining rooms, inspires new desserts (une coupe Bokhara), and even launches a dance craze (The Kabul Cotillion). This travelogue by "the hero of the minute" serves as the tipping point for an empire always leaning toward new conquests. Britain's political classes read it and "wonder what consequences would flow from regarding these strange and backward states as mere curiosities."

Suddenly, depending on the wind, Afghanistan seems like a potential new market, a threat to established markets, or a prize for some foreign competitor (Russia). Overestimating his ability to guide geopolitical motives, Burnes returns to Kabul as an adviser to a British delegate. He knows enough to sound a warning, but his superiors believe they needn't attend to the murky local attitudes that might complicate their plans.

Before he can fully understand what's happening, an army of 50,000 men is on the move. The logistics of such an operation are awesome, an unimaginable exertion of physical labor. One lieutenant is attended by 40 bearers. Three of the 30,000 camels carry just cigars. Told to bring only the essentials, they still find room for a pack of fox hounds. The general's bossy wife must have every convenience of home in this mountainous desert. But the outcome is never in doubt. Indeed, the army reporter is so confident of their progress that he often describes the next day's events before they happen.

Hensher claims his book is "a pack of lies," but in fact it's a stunningly accurate analysis of depravity, stupidity, and hubris across cultures. Readers who persist through its thick style will find "The Mulberry Empire" flatters them with its erudition and wit. The cast is spectacularly diverse, shifting through characters up and down the social ladder in a half dozen countries, from the teenage Queen of England to an old housekeeper in Russia, from a morose deserter to a pompous military hero. Naturally, to capture a galaxy of people this wide, the plot shifts orbits at the slightest provocation for purposes that aren't always clear till much later – if ever.

Some of the blame, the author claims in an end note, lies with A.S.Byatt, who told him he "must write a long novel" – dangerous advice from a woman whose fiction has been growing unreadably complex lately. But Hensher's witty commentary on the ludicrous rituals of entertainment, travel, and conquest, supported by an encyclopedic level of historical detail, inspires an endless procession of gasps over a time when life was "one ceaseless, palatial, sublime discomfort."

What's particularly brilliant is the way the novel returns, after all the planning and scheming and mayhem and destruction, to find both societies essentially unchanged. The Afghans celebrate their success in battle. The British sentimentalize their dignity in defeat. The optimism of leaders who imagine they can engineer intricate situations in places that are impossibly foreign seems, in Hensher's wry rendition, almost like yesterday.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to charlesr@csps.com.

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