Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Philip Hensher: The Mulberry Empire (2002)

Edition: Flamingo, 2003

What does the First Afghan War mean to people today? Like many colonial conflicts, it is almost totally forgotten, but it had a big effect on the history of British rule in India, and so influenced the formation of one of the great powers in today's world. The purpose of the war was basically to determine whether Britain or Russia would dominate Afghanistan, but it turned out to be one of the biggest military disasters ever experienced by a colonial power. The sixteen thousand men of the army of the Indus marched on Kabul, and one man returned. It has appeared in literature elsewhere, and I am probably not alone in being more familiar with the war from George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman than from Hensher's 2002 novel. The Mulberry Empire is a much more serious affair than Fraser's; The Mulberry Empire intends to be literature rather than entertainment, on the surface a more ambitious aim,

The Mulberry Empire - so called because Pushtu has a multiplicity of words for the fruit - is not so much an analysis of the war as a depiction of several lives caught up in the events which led to the British invasion. The central character is Alexander Burnes, who visited Kabul in the 1830s and wrote a best selling account (raising concerns which partly prompted the fears about Russian intentions which led to the war).

The story is told in the third person, which has the effect of diluting the immediacy of the narrative as compared with Flashman, told by a great character in the first person. (And his blunt judgments of those involved in planning the invasion of Afghanistan as "old women" and "fools" are much more entertaining than a book where the reader is left to try to assess the characters themselves, when they are drawn so sketchily as here.) Indeed, there is a major problem with characterisation here. Reading the novel, it seems to be populated by wraiths moving around a foggy nowhereland: but it is a depiction of some fascinating historical people in fascinating places at a fascinating time. The most interesting character is Bella, an unconventional London debutante who is fascinated by Burnes: but her role in the action is best described as peripheral.

As entertainment, I greatly prefer Flashman's account, for the edge and humour his narration gives Fraser's novel. The artifice here is more obvious (Fraser was a cleverer writer than he appears to be, deliberately). Hensher describes colourful scenes and people (though oddly almost skips the harrowing of the British forces on their retreat from Kabul), but is very detached, and actually manages tt be less interesting than a straightforward non-fictional historical account would be, and certainly less interesting than Fraser, whose zest for life comes over in almost every sentence he ever wrote.

On the face of it, this is an odd impression of the novel with which to end up, because I really enjoyed the first section of The Mulberry Empire, telling of Burnes first visit to Kabul and the fuss made of him on his return to London: this, I thought, was a book which would actually live up to the hyperbole of the reviews. But 150 pages on, it had palled. Perhaps retention of more of the history would have helped, or re-setting the story at a time when there was a less dramatic series of events going on, as that is clearly not his forte as a writer. From what Hensher says in his afterword about the relationship between the events and characters in The Mulberry Empire and what the historical accounts say, there is no particular reason why the novel had to depict any real people or relate to anything that really happened; it is more about the concept of the Afghan kingdom in the first half of the nineteenth century than its actuality. He acknowledges that "this is a pack of lies, though the outlines of my imaginary war occasionally coincide with a real one". Take away the coincidences, and improve the novel, as truth is here not just stranger than fiction, but more interesting and not as monochromatic.

My rating for The Mulberry Empire is 4/10, mainly for the first hundred pages.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Steven Saylor: Roma (2007)

Published: Constable, 2007

Steven Saylor is best known for his series of ancient Roman detective novels featuring Gordianus the Finder, and his other works have also been crime fiction until now. Roma takes him out of the genre confort zone, being an ambitious attempt to contain the history of Rome from its earliest origins to the end of the Republic, a period of about a thousand years, within a single novel. Saylor makes his task more manageable by structuring the history as a series of episodes around the best known stories, and linking them by a simple device. The central character in each story, who is never the focus from the historical point of view, is the current owner of an amulet passed from generation to generation.

Writing a novel about the development of a great city is not a new idea. Peter Ackroyd's London comes to mind, though it's not a useful comparison for me as I haven't read it, but it shows that Saylor was not the only writer with this idea. But for there's one really important precedent for Roma: the histories of Livy. While not a novel in the modern sense, it is a highly dramatic version of the events covered in Saylor's book (and what went on in between). Livy added pro-Augustan spin to the disregard for evidence and acceptance of the supernatural common to most ancient historians, but makes up for this by the quality of his writing and the interest of his tales. In his acknowledgment of his debt to Livy in the afterword, Saylor describes his histories as "one of the great reading experiences of a lifetime", which is perhaps overdoing it a bit, but suggests just how difficult it would be for Saylor to live up to his source material. And that isn't even mentioning the other writers who have taken stories from Livy over the last two millennia, including Shakespeare, whose play Coriolanus and poem The Rape of Lucrece describe two of the same stories used by Saylor. (Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra take place off stage from two of the last tales).

The first stories are set before the city existed, and tell of the origin of the amulet. They juxtapose modern ideas of the reasons for the foundation of the settlement (on salt trading routes) with myths associated with the area of the seven hills (a fight between Hercules and the monster Cacus). As with other supernatural events throughout Roma, the latter is rationalised by Saylor, in line with modern sensibilities outside the fantasy genre about magic, monsters and demigods. Then each tale skips a couple of generations to end a millennium later in the reign of Augustus.

There's plenty of action, and the stories are good. Accuracy is another issue, but obviously problems in this area are more due to the sources than to distortion by Saylor, and he actually uses the form of Roma to show how oral history becomes altered within only a few generations, as people in later stories discuss the events that have already been covered more directly, and the timespan between the stories about Romulus and the lifetime of Livy is a lot greater than a century.

While the inspirational quality of Livy's materlel cannot be doubted, Saylor's versions do suffer from the episodic structure he has adopted. He doesn't really succeed in making the reader feel that this is one story, that of the city, rather than a collection of short stories about individual moments which happen to be arranged by their internal chronology, though he does his best with numerous back references and through the device of the inherited amulet. Perhaps reading Roma is best followed by finding a good translation of Livy, who didn't need to fit his work into a pre-existing form; for the restrictions of the novel - particularly those imposed by the length requirements made to fit in a single volume - have led Saylor to produce a gallant failure. So my rating for Roma is 5/10, though I'd rate most of the individual tales at about 7/10.