BHISHMA'S RECLUSIVE ACQUAINTANCE up in Oregon recently recommended to me James Michener’s novel Caravans, published in 1962 but set in the Afghanistan of the years immediately following World War II.
I read it in the days following New Year’s Eve, when another old friend announced his view — I’d heard it before — that the world as we know it was about to end, if not in our lifetimes, then in those of our children. “Our” children, I type: but this old friend has no children, and it was at first to that that I attributed his pessimism.
Soon, though, another idea occurred to me: “the world as we know it” has ended many times, and will end many times again. It’s always doing that, ending, then evolving into the world as another society knows it, only to end again. The world as the Roman Republic knew it ended, and the world as the Roman Empire. The world as Chief Joseph knew it. The world as two protagonists of this book, Nazrullah and Zulffiqar know it: Nazrullah, a civil engineer who believes in a future Westernized Afghanistan, enlightened and developed and comfortable; Zulffiqar, a nomadic chieftain who knows such an Afghanistan will be attempted, will destroy his way life, and must be prepared for.
I was impressed with another of Michener’s books, Iberia, and am equally so with this. Michener seems at ease alternating between fiction and philosophy, between active participation and objective contemplation. I suspect his books are very different to varied readers. I find reassurance, in the face of my friend’s pessimism, in the constancy Michener finds in human behavior, always alternating between instinct and education, reality and idealism, love (and jealousy) and reason, things as they always are and as they always, we are apparently doomed to feel (though differently, according to the values in fashion at the moment), should be.
Caravans makes me wish I were fifty (and the world eighty) years younger and a good horseman. It made me think, too, of my mother, who in her young and middle years wondered about Tashkent and Samarkand, and in her later years managed to visit them, which I shall almost surely not. And it makes me worry that perhaps my next read will be Frederick Prokosch's The Asiatics or Seven Who Fled — though either would be a real self-indulgence, for I read them over twenty years ago, and there are unread books to visit…