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AN AFGHAN INTERLUDE

The Mulberry Empire By Philip Hensher, Flamingo, £ 17.99

“I had come to feel as a reader that the contemporary novel’s addiction to irony and scepticism was in danger of diminishing its range. Quite simply, I wanted to write a novel with absolutely no shame.” No words could more fittingly describe the spirit of The Mulberry Empire than these, Philip Hensher’s own.

It is rare to see a new novel so grand in scope, so far removed from the physical realities of modern times. Hensher, at no point in the rambling historical novel, loses sight of his characters in his effort to recreate a place and time almost two centuries past. His tone blends perfectly with his chosen period, without affectation or pretentious overtones.

Hensher takes the reader to Kabul, to London, to Calcutta with the magic touch that has been compared to Conrad. He flits from the odours of Kabul to the seasonlessness of London with a captivating deftness. High-society England, the courtly norms of the Afghans, the tombstones of Calcutta’s Park Street graveyard are the here and the now of The Mulberry Empire.

The novelist-critic toys with some of Conrad’s themes as well — notably, that of the “outsider”. But foreign lands and the sense of otherness aside, Hensher seldom goes deeper into the root of what creates identity. Instead, he creates a canvas through a startling range of characters central to the narrative as well as peripheral. And, again, without the depth or haunting imagery of, for example, a Heart of Darkness, Hensher raises subtly themes such as colonialism, though his agenda is surely not a political one.

Rooted in the history of the first Afghan war, The Mulberry Empire has at its core Alexander Burnes and Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. One man’s bravery, one nation’s ambition meet the towering strength of the East. Though perhaps a cliché by now, this subject meets with renewed interest given the current world events. The novel was completed before the most recent attacks on Afghanistan, and has little to contribute by way of comment or insight, though many observers have pointed to the value of the novel in this respect. Hensher does not aim to write a historical work. He, in fact, provides a bibliography at the end for “the reader in search of a more accurate account”.

A love story is woven into the quilt of the novel as well. There are also flashes of Jane Austen, down to a passage on “female accomplishments” that is dangerously reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice. East versus London takes the place of the town versus country argument of that novel. But Bella, Hensher’s heroine, bears only minor resemblance to Austen’s Elizabeth. Hensher does appear to borrow from Austen’s crisp handling of the conversation. Bella’s attraction towards Alexander is instant and irrational, yet enduring. However, the main focus of the novel is the war, and though integral to the action, the love story takes a backseat.

Hensher, at times, tries to give the impression of historical authenticity, even incorporating an “Anthropological Interlude”. But he is most successful in evoking the images of the 1830s, sensuous as he is. Taste, colour, sound, smell… He casts a spell on the senses.

The novelist lives up to his promise of writing a novel that is without shame. It is resplendent in its slow march. There is little experiment with style here. Hensher seems most at ease within the traditional structure of a historical novel. His narrative is straightforward, tried and tested. Adventure, love, romance, exploration form the backdrop for the themes, but while reading The Mulberry Empire, it is far happier to simply get lost in the cadence of words.

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