Tragic Afghan tale has eerie timeliness: Ambitious story packs powerful message about imperialism

review of The Mulberry Empire by Phillip Hensher, publisher: Knopf

by Moe Berg, Edmonton Journal, September 15, 2002

Philip Hensher's new book, The Mulberry Empire, is a sprawling epic based on an ill-fated invasion of Kabul by the British in the early 1800s. It has already been long-listed for a Booker Prize and has received stunning critical praise. Hensher is a book critic and columnist for The Independent who with this, his fifth novel, seems poised for superstardom.

The multi-tentacled tale begins in Kabul where we are introduced to its semi-benevolent ruler, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. An adventurer named Alexander Barnes travels to Kabul and befriends the Amir and later chronicles his experiences. After Barnes' writings circulate through London society, British royalty gets the idea that Kabul must be of interest to the empire and begins to take steps to bring it into its orbit lest unfriendly parties, namely the Russians, take it for their own. Unfortunately, the British align themselves with some unsavoury partners in this already questionable endeavour and the reader can smell impeding doom wafting from every turned page.

The action rotates between Kabul, London society, Russia and India. Most interesting are the scenes of London's upper and royal classes, which is where readers will find the lighter moments of the novel. Readers are offered a glimpse of London during the "season" when, "the upper few thousand, scrubbed and whited like so many peripatetic sepultures, squeeze themselves into their least comfortable clothes, and set off for the evening's entertainment." It is here that Burnes meets Bella Garraway, the beautiful heroine, who falls not from but into grace on Burnes' departure.

In Russia, we are introduced to Vitkevich, Barnes' Russian counterpart. Another Englishman, Charles Masson, a deserter-cum-trader, is lurking in the shadows of Kabul. The entire cast of characters fills a list four pages long at the back of the book. Specifically intriguing is Barnes' guide, Mohan Lol, who later becomes his confidante. Mohan's speech on the true nature of imperialism is the book's most compelling insight and it establishes him as the voice of wisdom amidst a chorus of malevolence and misguided intentions.

Hensher's book isn't particularly plot-driven. Much of his prose is devoted to attempting to recreate the sights, sounds and smells of his characters and their surroundings; the perfume of Kabul "where dead dog and fruit blossoms competed" to the seasons of London, "dust and mud." All of the locations are drawn as unrelenting in their harshness and boredom. While Hensher succeeds grandly in giving his characters and settings three-dimensions, some readers may be overwhelmed by the detail and others may find it tedious. There is a hyper-realism to his characters' dialogue, which occasionally drags down the pace. However, most of the book's shortcomings are not so much flaws, rather the consequences of Hensher's ambition.

The Mulberry Empire is one story of how empires throughout time felt not only the need but also the duty to increase their sphere of influence -- to depose leaders and install "friendlier" rulers. It is possible that Hensher meant to send a message to those who still cling to this dubious notion. Indeed, there is an eerie timeliness to this novel. However, The Mulberry Empire is best enjoyed as a yarn. The author assures us in his "Errors and Obligations" that this is a book of fiction, however much it may be based on historical events and real people. Readers will be challenged by the breadth and depth of Hersher's tragic tale.

©Copyright 2002 CanWest Global Communications Corp.

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