Tuesday, January 22, 2013

MICHENER'S CARAVANS


Published in 1963 and set in 1946-7 (before the Partition of India), this book reminds us what a great investigator and thoughtful writer Michener was. The story itself is outmoded and Michener does not show great insight into the psychology of his characters. But one wonders if anyone in "exceptional" America read it when Charlie Wilson went to arm the Taliban against the Soviet supported regime, when soldiers were sent after 9/11 only to remain there for more than a dozen years. 

The author described Kabul as resembling Palestine in Jesus' day, of death by stoning, of an eye for an eye and a life for a life, of the fate of the country to be determined--whenever Afghanistan might be left to itself--by the struggle between the many bearded men led by mullahs from the hills and the few young experts with degrees from Oxford, Sorbonne or MIT, the former making up 99.99 percent of the country. 

"We are a brigand society and we murder our rulers," says one of the characters. There are indeed striking descriptions of a violent and very different society that has very likely not changed much except that the munitions have multiplied, the mullahs reinforced with money and ideology from an even more fundamentalist source, and the young experts very likely all killed, corrupted or disenchanted. It is a quiet book and does not address itself to the political issues. It muses on the fact that the Afghans look so much like the Jews and thought of themselves as one of the "lost tribes"; they rejoiced equally when the Germans proclaimed them the First Aryans.

Michener's story also gives prominence to wanderers who traded goods (perhaps stolen) and made annual migrations with their goats and camels between the Oxus (now in Turkmenistan) and Jhelum (now in Pakistan), a trek of two thousand miles.  Were they Povindahs? Kochis? Whatever, they were the gypsies of Central Asia.  The author tells of the Desert of Death that lies between Iran and Afghanistan and of the mysterious City at the border. The heat and absence of humidity of the desert were such that the Helmand River flows into the desert and simply disappears.  

The most ambitious among the Afghans in this book wants to build a dam and transform the desert gradually into farmland.  He even explores the ancient karez tunnels that were sunk deep into the ground to bring up water; such tunnels may have had Persian origins and are to be found all the way from Iran and Pakistan through Afghanistan to the desert town of Turpan in Western China.  Some years ago, I read a whole bunch of books on the Silk Road as if in a trance.  The romantic caravan trails they described, I learn now from Michener, crossed at Kabul.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

RED SORGHUM

This is a bold, brash, bawdy and brilliant work. Purporting to be a family chronicle that the narrator obtains from a 92 year old woman from his family village, it tells of his brave, lusty and larger than life grandparents and their turbulent existence carving out a life in the midst of a northern Chinese region infested with bandits, opium smokers and gamblers, and invaded by the Japanese. There are horrific scenes of brutality: second grandma (thereon hangs another tale) and young auntie were raped and mutilated, Uncle Arhat was skinned alive before being dismembered, Grandpa himself murdered Grandma's newly-wed husband and father-in-law (you simply have to read this book).

The author paints his scenes in vivid language: the red sorghum of the title itself refers to the hardy grain that shimmered in fields like a "sea of blood"; dancing, it "reeked of glory; cold and graceful, it promised enchantment; passionate and loving, it was tumultuous." The narrator felt a pang on a return visit, finding the fields planted with a hybrid variety of sorghum that never seemed to ripen (guaranteed to cause constipation); he was haunted by "a nagging sense of our species' regression."

Though Grandma died in the main battle told, that of the Black Water River with several bands of Chinese ill-coordinated against the Japanese, she was the heroine--lovely as foot-binding had reduced her feet to three inch "lotuses" so that when she walked, "her body swayed like a willow in the wind," and as opium-smoking short of addiction had given her "the complexion of a peach, a sunny disposition and a clear mind." She died unafraid but unwillingly; unafraid of the eighteen levels of Hell that everyone knew about but unwilling to let go of life.

The novel covers much more--a digression into the marauding packs of dogs almost has the dogs taking on the voice of the narrator; a survivor of the war who lives on into the middle of the 20th century, Old Eighteen Stabs Geng who lived despite those wounds because of the magical ministrations of a silver fox, succumbs to starvation when his pension is held up by a petty bureaucrat.

Should the author have put more energy into decrying such evil? This reviewer will not judge, only saying this--that it would have been criminal not to have written this book or to have published it. Yes, the story line is not chronologically straightforward and often jerks like the handheld videocams of journalists embedded in some war. So what? The Nobel was well earned.


For some context, I read Red Sorghum just after reading Anchee Min's Empress Orchid about which I wrote (in a review posted on Amazon.com):

This novel about the last Empress Dowager of China as a young concubine in the late Qing dynasty is smoothly told.  She pays attention to palace politics and learns about the wider world though her eunuchs, the emperor she serves and his half brother.  When she bears the Emperor a son, she is elevated to the position of Empress, only she has to share that position as there is already one. But never mind, it happens to be her best friend among occupants of the harem. 

Orchid must also face down and defeat the dying Emperor's most powerful advisor.  (One does not learn why he chose to make an enemy of her.)  China's humiliation at the hands of the barbarians penetrates into the harem somehow and Orchid chooses to support the uncle of her son the next Emperor.  Throughout the book, the prose is smooth and chaste, bloodless, even when people died.  An interesting read.


As Maureen Dowd complained after an editorial colleague at the New York Times won the Nobel Prize (for Economics) this is hardly a fair comparison.  It is not.  Some people love Goya's paintings, especially those he did of Spanish royalty.  There is an air, a style about them.  But it is difficult to pay heed when there is a Guernica in the same room.