Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Historical and Literary Blurb for Caravans, by James Michener

If you can, visit the James Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, the town in which James Michener grew up. Not only does it feature some wonderful art exhibits, but it also features a compact but amazingly informative and well-placed exhibit on James Michener himself.

You will see, among other things, all the novels and articles he wrote, gathered on shelves and under glass. Hawaii and The Source were two of his most ambitious efforts. Then there were the books about American States and their origins, and his earlier autobiographical works. There was Tales of the South Pacific, which inspired the show of almost the same name. There were books about other areas of the world.

And then there was Caravans (1963). A bestseller at the time, it garners little attention today. And yet, it was perhaps one of his most prescient -and for me, likable- works. He pontificated the least. Somehow it came across to me as having been written more from the heart, although I am sure he himself would have said that all his books were written from the heart. He did serve in the area of South Asia (and also Southeast Asia) and stayed there for a few years.

The new kid on the block, Mark Miller, an American of German Jewish origins on the staff of the American embassy in Afghanstan, has been told to find a young American woman, married to an Afghani engineer, who disappeared. This is 1946, when Afghanistan is just coming out of the stone age and its cities are also just starting to become somewhat cosmopolitan. There is a stark rift between the educated upper class and the strongly religious, less educated class of the villages. (Interestingly, though, there are mullahs -holy men of Islam- in both camps.)

It turns out that Ellen Jasper, a young woman bored with insular, middle class values of the small American town in which she grew up, also left her Afghani husband, not because she had problems with being his second wife -she loved and respected his first wife- but because she felt he was too bourgeois, too middle class. She seemed to yearn for something she could not name, according to the accounts of those who knew her.

Michener seemed to have predicted the rise of  anti-establishment, hippie women and feminists as well, for women like Ellen Jasper would flood campuses and become the spokeswomen for the Women's Movement, as well as its writers, speakers and artists.

Not that Michener is always kind to her - he suggests that she is promiscuous and selfish, perhaps narcissistic. But she is beautiful, intelligent and powerful in her wants and articulate in their defense.

The characters who come in contact with each other and with her are memorable and powerful in their own right, as well:  Mark himself; Dr. Stiglitz, the German doctor who fled Germany with war crimes on his conscience for which he is still trying to atone; Moheb Khan, the urbane, intelligent, ruthless son of Shah Khan, leading warlord of the area; Ellen Jasper's former Afghani husband, Nazrullah; Mira, the nomad girl who falls in love with Mark, and others. Besides populating his book with vivid characters, Michener provides a magnificent travelogue of the main settlements and towns of Afghanistan, and horrifically accurate historical accounts of their origins and the battles fought for them. The customs and traditions of Afghanistian, religious and cultural, are present as well, inseparable from the plot and story, and grounding it in sober realism and believability.

And the scenery drawn in each chapter becomes so much more than a backdrop - almost a character, a presence in its fierce and foreboding way.

Somehow Caravans hits home for me more than Michener's other novels; he is less preachy, definitely more understanding and tolerant of Afghanistan than he seems to be of other countries about which he writes. And he has drawn a powerful, confident female protagonist in Ellen Jasper, one whose vision both infuriates and fascinates.

And if you couldn't tell, I fell in love with Moheb Khan...

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