The Mulberry Empire

 

by Philip Hensher

 

(Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)

 

The connection that drew me to this Philip Hensher's The Mulberry Empire was Afghanistan. I came across an advertising blurb that said it was about a British expedition sent into the Afghan Mountains from India in 1839 to bring this country under control of the British Empire. Not a very successful venture of the 50,000 troops entering the country, only one returned.

 

"What better introduction to this country that we too invaded?" I thought. So I found a copy -- and thank goodness. This novel turned out to be one of the two or three finest I have read in recent years. I recommend it highly. Hensher is a born storyteller who brings every one of his many characters to life.

 

Consider this passage about an anthropologist who came later to seek information about the invasion:

 

"The night of the third day, he was listening to the family memories of an old Afghani, sitting in his shelter....

 

"'The bones are there,' he said. 'Your ancestor's bones.'

 

"'Where?' Conrad said.

 

"'Over the next hill,' the man said. 'You do your ancestor honour by your journey.... My son will take you there,' the old man said. He clapped his hands and a youth in the dark recesses of the hut stood up. He turned his head and rattled out a short, metallic burst of tribal Pushto. The boy sulkily came forward.

 

"'Tomorrow will be early enough,' Conrad said, alarmed, but the man seemed set on the idea.

 

"'It is very close,' he said. 'And today is early enough, to do honour to your ancestor. It is very close, and quite safe.'

 

"Conrad gave up, and, wrapping himself up and taking a torch, followed the boy out of the hut. He was oddly annoyed by the assumption that he was worried about safety. The group seemed to approve of this urgency. The boy said nothing, just slouched a pace or two ahead of him, and the anthropologist was in no mood to talk. The night was astonishingly clear; the moon bit at the deep black of the sky, and beneath the feet, the hard snow crunched like gravel. They plodded onwards in the intense hard cold. When Conrad fell, the ground shifting beneath him, the boy came back a little and hoiked him up roughly without making a comment. There was no sound, no light but the brilliant moon; somewhere, beyond the hills, a dog howled faintly. It took ten minutes to reach the top of the steep hill, and then the boy made a rough sweeping gesture. There was nothing to be seen, nothing but a smooth field of untouched snow. Conrad turned to the boy, but he was hunched over a cigarette, trying to get a match to spark. The boy raised his head, and gestured again. Conrad began to walk forward, not knowing what else to do. In a moment he would turn back, assume a solemn expression, and allow himself to be led back to the tent. There might be more to see in the morning, of course. He took another step forward, and then something broke underneath his feet; something friable, empty, like a great bird's egg. He pulled his foot up, and something came with it. He saw what it was, knowing what it would be before he knew what he felt; and it was a skull, its crushed-in roof biting at the sole of his boot, and then, helplessly, he toppled forward with one leg in the air. He fell, ludicrously, hard, and something, again, shattered underneath him; the bones, another set of bones, what remained of another man, and, nauseous, twitching, he flailed about, trying to raise himself without doing one thing, without putting his hands on the field of bones. But from here, he could see one thing: the snow was not smooth and level, as it looked when you stood; it rippled away, unevenly, like a cloth cast over the shattered remains of a broken tea set. It was all bones, heaped up and left where they lay, untouched, contemptuously unburied. He wanted to turn and go back to the boy, unfeelingly pulling on his cigarette, but, as he pulled himself up, he seemed to fall forward, and then, again, under his boots, that sickening breaking sensation, and another, and another, and another. This was what he had come to find, and now he had to go.

 

"The next day, he walked and walked and walked, and he got to Jalalabad, and no one paid him any attention as he entered the city. And the day after that he agreed a price with a taxi driver, and drove back to Kabul along the snowy roads -- it took four hours -- and tried never to think of any of his journey, ever again."

 

The British had clearly been out of their depth here. They sought to impose a new ruler in place of one they felt they could not control. Here they meet that man for the first time:

 

"It was then that the largest of the tents opened up, and from its depths, like an insect from a flower, came a tiny little old man. He was first, but behind him came a swarm of men.... The Governor fell silent, and, at a little sign from the nazir, the others dropped back a pace. Runjeet Singh came forward; shrivelled, bent, dark, but white-haired, his kindly face was twisted and broken around his sightless eye. There was something awesome about him, tiny as he was; his face, asymmetrical, torn off to one side by some ancient violence, was pointed, alert, keen. He wore no weapon, but in his face there was everything he had ever seen, and in the single dark knowing eye of the warrior there seemed buried every man he had ever seen killed....

 

"'Great King,' Auckland began, pulling himself together. As long as you spent in the East, it was difficult not to be reminded from time to time of the Arabian Nights, and here, sitting in a silken tent, surrounded by fierce shining men with scimitars, talking to a wise king with the face of a wounded animal and the fantastic tongue of an afrit, the feeling that one was in the middle of some superb story was stronger than ever before. Burnes watched the Governor General work his way round slowly to the subject of Kabul and Dost Mohammed. There was, in truth, little to say, and Runjeet Singh nodded encouragingly from time to time, like a kind master reassuring a slow pupil construing one of Virgil's trickier passages. All that needed to be done was to suggest to the King that he enjoyed the full support of the British, and turn his thoughts towards the matter of Kabul. He could be useful; and there was nothing more desirable than that he be given the impression that the English found him not just useful, but indispensable....

 

"'I see,' Runjeet Singh said. Then he thought hard for a moment, and said something. For a moment, the court of the Governor strained forward, not having understood or quite heard what the King had said: but at this moment, he had dropped into his native language. A prince, prepared, stepped forward and translated, an innocent expression on his face. The King of the Punjab sat back with a calm expression, observing his courtier drop the royal bombshell. 'And, His Majesty has just said, Your Excellency is proposing,' the prince said, 'that the present ruler of Kabul be disposed of, and his lands be given to His Majesty the King of the Punjab.'

 

"The whole of the Governor's entourage almost fell over with astonishment. How Runjeet Singh could have thought that he had been summoned to be offered an entire country was beyond credulity. What on earth the Governor General had said to put this appalling notion into the King's head could not be recalled. Auckland flushed, and now there was almost nothing to say. It was not at all clear that Dost Mohammed should be removed, but if another ruler were to be installed, then no one would want to create an empire for a ruler who, despite all protestations of friendship, might turn into an enemy at any moment. For a moment, Auckland could be seen wondering what effect the name of Shah Shujah would have at this point; then his eyes flickered down to the diamond, and he was silent. His mouth opened and closed, but he was utterly silent.

 

"'Well, all that can be decided,' Runjeet Singh said kindly, returning to English. 'This is all most interesting.'"

 

Most interesting indeed, with the family of the former ruler, Dost Mohammed, lurking in the wings waiting for the right time to strike against this invading army. The weight of that impending doom pervades every episode of this wonderful and deeply moving novel.-- Gerry Rising