The Man Who Would Be King -- in Afghanistan

March 21, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

The Man Who Would be King, by Ben Macintyre. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 288 pages. $25.

In August 1839, British officer Richard Kennedy had just arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul, "when he found himself face to face with an astonishing apparition, a white man with a vast beard whose outfit was so exotic as to make the newly reinstalled king and his British allies seem almost dowdy. ... He introduced himself to the astonished Kennedy as 'a free enlightened citizen of the greatest and most glorious country in the world.' Kennedy was understandably intrigued to find an American in the middle of Kabul, let alone one clad in what appeared to be fancy dress."

The American apparition was none other than Josiah Harlan, a Quaker and Freemason from Pennsylvania, a self-made tribal prince and mercenary general who would later serve as the inspiration for the Rudyard Kipling short story (and John Huston film) "The Man Who Would Be King." The above excerpt is from an extraordinary new book bearing the same title, Ben Macintyre's fascinating account of Harlan's unlikely adventures.

Macintyre, a columnist and correspondent for The Times of London, came across Harlan's name during a 1989 journey through Afghanistan, while covering the mujahedeen resistance against the Soviets. From then on he could never quite get the man out of his head, so in 2001 he began researching Harlan's past.

The trail at first was cold. The few contemporary British sources were dismissive, largely because Harlan had worked for the enemy, Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed Khan. A sketchy American compilation from 1939 claimed that Harlan's personal papers had burned in a house fire.

Then Macintyre struck gold.

"In a tiny museum in Chester County, Pennsylvania," he writes, "I finally discovered Harlan's lost voice: in an old box, buried and forgotten among the files, was a tattered manuscript handwritten in curling copperplate, a large section of Harlan's missing autobiography, unnoticed and unread since his death, along with letters, poems, and drawings."

Harlan's writings supply the heart of this book, providing a road map of his travels during his 15 years in Afghanistan, as well as the cocksure attitude and lush description that bring him to life. Macintyre is wise enough to step aside when Harlan is at his best, yet ably turns a phrase when needed, as with this depiction of Harlan's departure on one of his first Afghan adventures: "With Old Glory fluttering overhead, an American in a cocked hat rode out of town on a thoroughbred horse, accompanied by a mongrel dog, a ragtag army of mercenaries, and a one-armed bandit."

Even apart from his travels, Harlan is an intriguing character: vain, stubborn, temperamental and somewhat prudish; yet prescient, expressive and endlessly curious. He is obsessed with following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, and proves to be a far better judge of the Afghans -- and far more tolerant -- than many of the British officers who arrive in his wake.

Harlan should have fared better in the pages of history. After returning to America he attracted some publicity. But his first book, a screed against British imperial foreign policy, created such ill will that his later efforts were never published. He faded into obscurity until his death in San Francisco in 1871, resurfacing only in ghostly outline as the fictional Daniel Dravot in Kipling's 1888 short story.

But thanks to Macintyre's fine book, Harlan at last gets his due.

Staff writer Dan Fesperman has covered three wars for The Sun, including the fighting in Afghanistan in late 2001, and was a correspondent in Berlin for the paper. His latest novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, recently won Britain's Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for the best thriller of 2003.

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