Several years ago, Philip Hensher decided that he wanted ‘to do something impossible: to write a 19th-century novel’. To that end, he has composed each of the many chapters of The Mulberry Empire, which fictionalises the First Afghan War of 1839-42, in imitation of a 19th-century prose writer. He has gleefully scrumped the styles of Dickens, Surtees, Tolstoy, Custine, Thackeray, Eliot, Austen, Gogol and possibly dozens of others – ‘possibly’, because he never names the writers he’s pastiching: it’s up to the reader to identify them.
Pastiche is a clubbable form of writing. It’s a way of tipping the wink – you and I both know who I’m getting at here. Consequently, among the pleasures of this immensely pleasurable novel is that you get to play critical Snap. This chapter matches Gogol; that one Austen. Have a go yourself. Who is Hensher pastiching in the following description?
London knows no seasons; knows nothing of spring or summer or winter. It knows nothing but two seasons: Dust, and Mud. Now, at this moment, in May, we seem to be getting towards the end of Mud. Mud settled in more than six months ago, and has shown no sign of taking its leave just yet. The streets have settled into their pristine ooze, and if there be any bedrock beneath the vast sucking mass which London is proud to call a street, no one pretends any longer to know. Anything dropped in the street is instantly swallowed by London and its mud, and is never seen again . . . Once a poor musician let his bassoon fall, not far from Seven Dials; the mud deprived him of his livelihood, and the family, tragically bassoonless, now must beg for their merest sufficiencies, there, outside Mrs Lirriper’s drapery shop. Once, as mothers tell their naughtier sons, a small boy let go of his mother’s hand while crossing the great swamp of Piccadilly, and, untethered, sank to the bottom of the mud, never to be seen again.
In the streets and salons of London, Dickens, Thackeray or Austen provides the style, and in rural Russia we get Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Hensher isn’t so much anxious about influence as deeply and openly grateful for it. He doesn’t waste time apologising, but gets on with telling the story.
The First Afghan War was among Imperial Britain’s greatest folies de grandeur. The aim of the campaign was to depose the canny ruler in Kabul, Dost Mohammed, and replace him with the Shah Shujah, weak and sybaritic, but a friend to Britain. With Afghanistan secured, it was hoped, Russian influence in this key buffer region would be stymied. Planned by Lord Auckland, and facilitated by the spying of the handsome Great Gamer Alexander Burnes, the war was fabulously simple in conception. The British would assemble a vast expeditionary force, and march on Kabul.
By the time it began its ponderous progress into Afghanistan, the ‘Army of the Indus’ comprised some 16,000 troops and 38,000 camp followers, as well as 30,000 camels and scores of elephants. The Army’s advance was accompanied by the skirling of fifes and the blare of brass bands, and from the arid plains of Afghanistan it raised a dust-cloud hundreds of feet high: it was a grand Imperial pageant intended to quell the Afghans by appearance alone. It worked. With a readiness which puzzled even the unreflective Auckland, Dost Mohammed left Kabul before the British arrived, and gave himself up to the Amir of Bokhara (who promptly imprisoned him). The Army of the Indus occupied Kabul bloodlessly and the Shah Shujah was set on the throne. A garrison of 10,000 soldiers installed themselves in a cantonment on the plain to the east of Kabul, and for two years Afghanistan enjoyed an uneasy peace.
In November 1841 rioting broke out in Kabul. Rebellion spread through the country, co-ordinated by Akbar Khan, the Dost’s son, and by Christmas Day the British – far from aid, and worsted by the guerrilla tactics of the Afghans – had agreed unconditionally to leave the country. Sixteen and a half thousand people departed from the cantonment, and five days into the retreat 12,000 of them were dead: killed by the cold, and the Afghan troops who continually harried the column. The survivors struggled on towards the British stronghold at Jalalabad, until they entered the two-mile-long Jugdulluk Gorge. The Afghans had blocked the far end with a six-foot-high wall of thorn-bushes, and with Afghan cavalry stopping off the near end and Afghan sharpshooters crowding the skylines, the defile was turned into an abattoir.
Only one person, William Brydon, made it back to Jalalabad, riding a dying horse and throwing his broken sword-handle into the face of his final attacker. Brydon became the keyhole through which a horrified Britain peered at the massacre. By the end of the 19th century the First Afghan War was chiefly remembered for the totality with which the glorious Army of the Indus had been turned into carrion.
With its relative brevity, its several charismatic personalities and its clear sense of an ending, the First Afghan War provides a neat framework over which to stretch a novel. Even so, it’s an ambitious task: a character in The Mulberry Empire observes how many thousands of stories are started and finished by a single battle. The obvious solution to the incorrigible plurality of the subject is to tell the story from many viewpoints. There is no controlling narrator in Hensher’s novel just as there is no controlling style. In an appendix – which seems to have been included less to help the reader than to draw attention to the author’s virtuosity – Hensher catalogues his book’s dramatis personae. The list runs to 113 names and includes spinsters, journalists, courtiers, soldiers, valets, maids, booksellers, adventurers, governor generals, opium addicts, catamites, clerics, princes, khans and spies. Each of these characters – as well as a dog – is at some point the focus of the narrative. Some – including the dog – die only a few pages after we first meet them. All are richly and convincingly drawn. The Mulberry Empire is what the Victorians would have called a ‘romance’, but it’s tinctured with Postmodern savvy.
To tell his story, Hensher cuts between England, Afghanistan and Russia. In Afghanistan we are admitted to the throne-room of Dost Mohammed, and to the alleyways and bazaars of Kabul. In Russia we follow the preparations of Ivan Vitkevitch, the silver-tongued Russian envoy to Kabul, whose mission is to subvert British intentions in Afghanistan. And in England we spend time in the drawing-rooms, dining-rooms and clubs of London, where the distant conflict is endlessly dissected and debated by the plumply complacent middle and upper classes. One of the most memorable Londoners we encounter is a melancholic and affected writer called Stokes – the self-proclaimed ‘lion of literary London’.
He was lying on the ottoman, swathed as profoundly as a pasha . . . His glittering pointed slippers, curling at the toes like those of some evil genius of the pantomime, were as villainous as a moustache. On his head, a weird fantastic helmet, a terrible oriental crest conjured out of a Chinese cambric square and a soiled yellow nightcap, wound up and round by Stokes’s grotesque unoccupied fancy into the semblance of a turban . . . With one hand, he negligently riffled the pages of a new book; with the other, he plucked idly at the purple Cashmere shawl flung over the gold velvet ottoman, as if considering whether or not to incorporate that too into his fabulous matutinal ensemble.
This is very well done – the vocabulary suitably frilled and furbelowed, and the prose languidly sumptuous in its rhythms (Surtees is the model here, I think). Stokes’s camp Orientalism is also a reminder of the principal themes of The Mulberry Empire: interpretation and imitation. Throughout the novel, the colonial powers spend their time imagining and reimagining the Afghans. Afghanistan’s bronze deserts are a tabula rasa on which the inhabitants of London and St Petersburg can doodle their Oriental fantasias. The Afghans, by contrast, make no attempt at all to sympathise with their would-be colonisers. In their sternness, their certitude and their unwavering sense of identity, the Afghans in the novel possess what Hensher has elsewhere approvingly called ‘the calm expansiveness of the Islamic mind’. This ‘Islamic mind’ is unassimilable: it can’t be brought to heel either by military effort or by an effort of the imagination. The final holocaust is a bloody refutation of British attempts to appropriate Afghanistan: an irruption of the real into their dreams of subjugation.
The jacket blurb says that ‘The Mulberry Empire is itself an empire of a novel.’ It’s all in the imitation. For the British Empire was itself in many ways a grand pastiche: a de luxe effort of style. As Jan Morris and, more recently, David Cannadine have argued, the British elicited respect from their subjects abroad by spectacle as well as by force, exporting to their various dominions a home-grown instinct for pomp and ceremony, inflected with local colour to produce in each country a pastiche of grandeur – a different gubernatorial style – which mimicked but outshone the indigenous plenipotentiaries. On the Subcontinent in particular, the British ruled with spectacular extravagance; or, as Jawaharlal Nehru put it, with ‘vulgar ostentation’. The climaxes of this Imperial obsession with style, at least in India, were the durbars, those grandiosely picturesque accession ceremonies where, amid a swaying forest of howdahs, pennants and palanquins, the Indian potentates processed to swear fealty first to Victoria (1877), then to Edward VII (1903), and finally to George V (1911). The durbars, like the Empire as a whole, and like Hensher’s novel, were about style – about getting the look right.
In order to get the look right, the pasticheur has to give up his own voice. But that may be no bad thing in Hensher’s case. He is best known as a critic and columnist, and his three previous novels read in some respects like warmed-over journalism. They feature snappy passages of music-writing, page-long riffs on Interesting Cultural Mores, and lots of pre-prepared descriptions of food. Other Lulus (1994), in particular, resembles an extended feature article on opera, interspersed with celebrity chef set-pieces. Though it hasn’t been an entirely rudderless career to date – Hensher has tended to nose around his preferred theme of pleasure: narcotic, sexual, fiscal – it has not been a particularly auspicious one either.
For Robert Louis Stevenson, literary impersonation wasn’t only an essential tutelary tool but also a way for mature authors to widen their range. Out of imitation, Stevenson felt, could spring originality: pastiche was an indispensable way to harness what he called ‘bracing influence’. The Mulberry Empire teems with instances of Hensher’s own inventiveness. Again and again, he coins a striking image. Of a fly on a table: ‘Its huge jewelled eyes blank, it seemed to be finding its way over the polished table by touch. It leant on its feelers like an old man on a pair of sticks.’ Of a dyspeptic Englishman in Kabul: ‘Gerard succumbed to what had clearly been troubling him for some time, a colossal, harrumphing and malodorous fart, like a bough breaking under the sheer weight of fruit.’ The interior of a Hanover Square house is ‘a wilderness of walnut’, while its garden is infested by ‘a swarm of savage peacocks’. There are odd irritations. In a book this long, repetitions are inevitable, and a few promiscuous adjectives – ‘splendid’ and ‘tremendous’ notable among them – end up coupling with noun after noun. But this is in every other respect a triumph of style and research: a novel as brocaded, exuberant, colourful and violent as its subject matter. Hensher is obviously very pleased with what he’s achieved – the book is tinged with the self-admiration which often characterises his journalism – but then he has every right to be.