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The Mulberry Empire: Or the Two Virtuous Journeys of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan

By Philip Hensher

Knopf, 476 pages, $40

English novelist and critic Philip Hensher and his publishers are no doubt feeling extremely prescient. Completed in the spring of 2001 and just now released, Hensher's The Mulberry Empire, long-listed for this year's Booker Prize, concerns the English invasion, occupation and expulsion from Afghanistan in the late 1830s.

While current events and atrocities may put this historical novel into a few more hands, only good writing will keep it there, and Hensher delivers. The Mulberry Empire is not simply a historical novel with a relevant setting; it is a laudable and periodically incisive inquiry into the psychology of colonization and nationalism.

Concerned for the safety of their neighbouring Indian colony, and nervous of the competing colonial appetite of Russia, England naively invaded Afghanistan in 1839 to replace the ruler, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, with a petulant puppet dictator keen to drape himself in jewels. Of the 16,000 British soldiers who occupied Kabul, one survived. Crucial to this disposition was Scottish explorer Alexander Burnes, who spent months earning the audience and respect of the discerning Amir, only to be (tragically) ignored by English superiors bent on invasion.

Returning "home" to England between courting and deposing Dost Mohammed, Burnes finds himself a society hero, a popular author and the lover of socialite Bella Garraway. These interludes in England provide The Mulberry Empire both the ingredients of the past -- a Victorian London of mud, debts, opium and pregnancy scandals -- and today's chance to view the hypocrisy and violence of yesterday's colonialism. Hensher's socialites pay lip service to "the precious flame of Christianity," but always keep one finger deep in the change purse. Alongside this runs a novelist's version of the cultural materialism described by thinkers such as Marvin Harris, observing not only the material, but also the mentality of empire; dockside crates are not simply "cotton, coal and tea," but "what the world dreams of."

The Mulberry Empire's psychological insights range from the private paradigm shifts of love, in which one consciousness gently levers another (with Bella and Burnes or the AWOL English soldier Masson and his garçon du jour), to the insecurities writ large by colonialism.

Through interludes in rural Russia, or the acclimatizations of the English in the East, or a male sexuality that shifts with the desert sands, Hensher mixes the wanderer's spirituality of Bruce Chatwin with Pascal's location of human evil in our inability to sit contentedly alone, finding not only greed, delusion and careerism in colonialism, but also misplaced hope and affection.

Having long ago abandoned the English army and language for the "long floating ambiguous rose-petalled paragraphs" of Persian, the soldier-turned-merchant Masson is uniquely disappointed when he reveals himself to the diplomat-spy Alexander Burnes: "There was no sign of warmth in this fellow's guarded manner, and, as he walked away, Masson tried to reconcile his two feelings, that now he had been reminded why he had left the British, and that he still wanted to meet this man."

Like the Kabul built by Dost Mohammed or the empire inherited by a young Queen Victoria, Hen- sher's narrative is slow to build and occasionally difficult to manage. The novel's spiral structure (circling a key event for two chapters then leaving it for as many as 10) is exciting when the various plot layers want to merge, but a little intrusive when they don't (e.g., an unnecessary "Anthropologist's Interlude"). More challenging than the occasionally lengthy wait required by this spiral narrative is a consistent but not always effective spiral prose made authentic (think of oral stories) but unattractive by repetition ("[they]turned their dust-filled eyes to the dust"). Like all acquired tastes, though, The Mulberry Empire ultimately rewards generously (and all with an extremely handsome book design).

As the old sabres rattle in new scabbards of "freedom" and wars on terror, Philip Hensher's The Mulberry Empire re-illustrates the humanitarian principles of community found in good art, reminding us that compassion is stimulated through the imagination: "Drink wine in the city of Kabul, and send round the cup without stopping; for Kabul is a mountain, a sea, a town, a desert." Darryl Whetter is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Windsor. His stories will appear shortly in The New Quarterly and The Windsor Review.

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