Few authors truly succeed in transporting their reader to another environment while portraying the positive and the negative in equal lights. James Michener, however, rises to this challenge and excels in his portrayal of post-WWII Afghanistan in this an unassuming novel most likely to be found in a used book shop. I picked the book up from a box of abandoned books in desperation for something to read and I have been forever changed by the experience.
“Caravans” features a young diplomat by the name of Mark Miller. After college and a stint in the Navy, Miller is posted to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan during the late 1940s. Through his eyes, the reader experiences one of the oldest cultures in the world as it approaches change on many frontiers. Central to the story is the disappearance of Ellen Jaspar, a young woman who, disillusioned with the comfortable life of her parents and her peers, marries a young man from Afghanistan she meets while in college. Against the will of her parents and to the chagrin of many of her countrymen, she moves to Afghanistan and renounces her former life and its privileges. Integral to the plot is the journey undertaken by the young diplomat across Afghanistan in search of Ellen Jaspar, and indeed in search of her the source of her discontent and its healing salve.
A variety of other fascinating personalities cross Miller’s path, resplendent in the depth of thought involved in their creation. There is a young engineer, educated in America, determined to help his country through advanced irrigation and the building of dams. Another young diplomat, also educated abroad addresses the tension between the interpretation of Islam by the rural Mullahs and the world’s demands about the treatment of women. An American geologist, a Nazi doctor, and a nomad chieftain and his strong and independent daughter also figure prominently in this exquisite quilt of culture and consciousness. Each of these personages, as they come and go in Miller’s experience, leave a lasting impression on the protagonist and the reader. Yet each character is a lesson in the deadening of man’s moral compass. Each vibrant personality Michener crafts shows the reader just how much one can ignore or become accustomed too across the passage of time. Between the brutality and the beauty of the Afghan landscape lies the beauty and brutality of the human persona and man’s ability to accommodate his own cruel but creative capacities.
Perhaps what is so fascinating about this book is its perceptiveness. Michener, through Miller’s observations, addresses the crossroads at which Afghanistan finds itself. From the conflict between the rural mullahs and the ruling elite educated abroad to the pressures from Russia and American placed on the Afghans, the modern reader can obtain a greater appreciation of the struggles of a people who have lived much of their lives in a storied isolation. The book is not, however, merely an eye-opening lesson in history. It is a beautiful description of a lifestyle unknown to many contemporary readers. As Miller crosses a land which still bears scars from the destruction of Genghis Khan, explores cities which have been abandoned so long their name is not remembered, and walks hundreds of miles with a people to whom international borders are meaningless, a beautiful picture unfolds of a time and place few people truly appreciate.
Michener himself visited Afghanistan several times and his travels influence his descriptions as well as his prose itself. Poignant, direct, and extremely contemplative at times, Michener’s portrayal of a world most Americans view as a repulsive desert spares no detail and often provokes much awe. The portrayal of the culture at the time is equally as detailed, though the reader should be cautioned that the descriptions of a stoning and a decapitation are as brutal as they are honest, a ploy of the author and narrator to provoke a very intelligent catharsis. One cannot truly write about something one has not experienced, but such an experience leaves a mark on one’s being that Michener expertly captures.
This book is highly recommended to those interested in the history of the Middle East and those fascinated by human psychology. That being said, this book should be required reading for every American who wishes to form conclusions on Islam as a religion and way of life, the Middle East and the war on terror, and the culture of the desert that seems so much at odds with what is viewed as capitalist decadence.
Anyone who picks this book up will put it down a wiser person in the ways of the world, especially the Muslim world, and a greater comprehension of the human condition, both born of the desert and born of the city.