'Mulberry Empire': imperialism redux

August 25, 2002|By Lauren A. Weiner | By Lauren A. Weiner,Special to the Sun

The Mulberry Empire, by Philip Hensher. Alfred A. Knopf. 512 pages. $26.

Among historical novelists there is a class that aims for something superior to your average Michener or Uris potboiler. One thinks of Guy Garcia, Susan Sontag and now, Philip Hensher, author of The Mulberry Empire. Members of this "better" breed are intellectually and aesthetically more ambitious than the best-selling writers but often lack the best sellers' ability to engage us in a tightly constructed story of a faraway time and place.

Hensher, a British novelist and critic, initially seems as pretentious and dilettantish as Sontag was in The Volcano Lover and In America. The approach is oh-so-Continental and decadent: Goethe and Paganini make early appearances; aristocrats take opium; and there are Sontagian creations like "Herr R --" -- a personage who soon exits the novel. Yet Hensher is no dilettante. He's steeped in the literature of Victorian-era travelers and explorers. His lavish descriptions suggest he knows firsthand the areas he writes about.

The Mulberry Empire, a panorama of the age of imperialism, centers on a region that now matters to Americans: Afghanistan and the countries of Southwest Asia. This tale of intrigue and mayhem, based on an actual British defeat in Afghanistan in 1839, is nothing if not flavorful.

The culinary wonders of the Amir of Kabul's kitchen are laid out in succulent detail. Hensher also knows his way around a desert landscape, a ship's deck, the bazaars and royal court of 19th-century Kabul, the high-toned drawing rooms and diplomatic ministries back in London, and the "rum, sodomy, and the lash" world of the rank-and-file members of Her Majesty's forces abroad.

The least convincing leg of the journey is the would-be Tolstoyan section set among the landed gentry of Russia. Occurring late in the novel, it strikes the reader as one milieu too many. It's as if the author were dutifully making his way down a checklist of imperialism-related locales (the Russians being the rivals of the British in Afghanistan).

Three of the major characters are young men sent on secret missions by their respective governments. More engaging is a homosexual British renegade, Charles Masson, who settles in Kabul and "goes native" in a morally ambiguous, Graham Greene-ish way. While Hensher displays a subtle mind, he apparently thinks his readers slow: He over-writes lest we miss the point, and the foreshadowing of the final military debacle is crude.

It turns out that no amount of juicy atmospherics can make up for a lack of dramatic momentum and faulty technique. Try to follow the adventurer, Alexander Burnes, wooing a lady upon his return to England: "He took her hand, and she moved, suddenly, her body moving in response to his touch like iron to a magnet. 'Come with me,' he said, rising and advancing to the door. He paused there, and turned, and smiled at her, and, deprived of all will, she rose herself, and followed him."

Either Burnes must have dropped the woman's hand at some point, or his (or her) arm operates like a Slinky.

Apparently, Knopf doesn't edit. The publisher should be ashamed to allow someone with a good imagination and a wealth of interesting cross-cultural insights to come off this poorly.

Lauren A. Weiner is an editor in the office of Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican. She has worked as a reporter, writer and editor for the Washington Times, the Institute for Contemporary Studies and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, Insight and elsewhere.

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