The Great Game

Reviewed by Michael Mewshaw
Sunday, September 8, 2002


By Philip Hensher

Knopf. 484 pp. $26

An acerbic columnist and literary critic for the Spectator and the London Independent, Philip Hensher has written novels every bit as sassy and contemporary as his nonfiction. But with The Mulberry Empire he reels back in time to the 1830s and writes a book of epic ambition about British and Russian efforts to expand their empires to Afghanistan, already a cockpit of international competition, a petri dish of old disasters. What Peter Hopkirk described in his celebrated historical account The Great Game, Hensher recreates in fiction, focusing -- as the flap copy puts it -- on "the politics and people on both sides, the passions and pride."

The story opens with a sharply observed scene of a young Scot, Alexander Burnes, waiting under what amounts to house arrest for an audience with Amir Dost Mohammed, the emperor of Afghanistan. Overwhelmed by the city, he imagines "a map of Kabul which did not describe the streets and the buildings, but set down the intangible and rich sudden odours of the place. . . ." Ultimately, his meeting with Dost Mohammed goes well, and Burnes returns to London, where he is lionized after the publication of his book Travels into Bokhara and Cabool. As he's feted by top people, he keeps a clear head and remains as capable of arguing the wisdom of imperial expansion as he is of courting Bella Garroway. By the end of the season, Burnes and Bella have had an affair, but he's obliged to return to Central Asia.

Up to this point The Mulberry Empire reads like a Victorian novel, with a modern gloss and evidence of the author's wit. "Bella bows, remembering very well what it was like to be clutched to the swarthy old Duchesse's bosom, heavy and spiked with trinkets; it felt like falling through the window of a jeweller's shop." If the mannered diction and dialogue occasionally grate, a reader accepts this as an attempt at historical verisimilitude.

But after Burnes and Bella part, they never meet again, and the story wanders around the globe and across the literary landscape. The style and tone change with quick cuts from Kabul to London, Calcutta to St. Petersburg. The Victorian novel becomes a boy's own adventure, then a Gothic romance, then a 19th-century Russian novel. One chapter ends at a crumbling country mansion in Gloucestershire, and the next opens with what reads like a parody of Tolstoy. "On 23 September, 183_, by the side of the road not many versts from the small Crimean town of ___, a gentleman of respectable demeanour but clad in a decidedly rusty black coat. . . ."

Soon the reader realizes that he has strayed from a recapitulation of events leading up to the massacre of 16,000 British troops into a magical seminar that goes by the name of postmodernism. When it suits the author's purposes or serves his whim, he inserts a winking, elbow-nudging passage into the narrative. He has Burnes glance up into the sky and spot a jet plane more than a century before its invention. This is followed by a seven-page passage entitled "Anthropological Interlude," wherein a contemporary figure tramps through a snow-covered countryside littered with British bones.

While it's conceivable that this layering of disparate styles, shifting points of view and authorial intrusions could add to a reader's understanding and pleasure, in this case the self-conscious preening is simply annoying. The smug note that Hensher adds at the book's end -- "Anachronisms and plain falsifications have on the whole been indulged in when it pleased me" -- doesn't help matters.

Another problem is that Hensher moves from scene to scene at leisurely, sometimes soporific length, yet seldom dramatizes crucial events, provides motivation for characters or ties up loose threads in the vast tapestry he half-weaves. And for a critic who sets a high standard for prose, he suffers embarrassing purple passages. ("Soon the princes of the English army would feel the weight of his wrath, would hear the song of Akbar's scimitar, slicing through air."

This is a shame because, at its best, The Mulberry Empire contains, like one of those glinting gold leaf domes in Central Asia, clusters of jewels, elegantly calligraphed wisdom and pleasing lines. Its depiction of London society, evocation of the ennui of a voyage to India and description of an English Christmas pudding prepared by Afghan cooks, are memorable set pieces. But sadly they don't cohere, and possible insights into Afghanistan and its current import get swamped.*

Michael Mewshaw's ninth novel, "Shelter from the Storm," is set in Central Asia. It will be published next March.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company