Review: Caravans

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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Caravans, James Michener's 1963 novel about the then-largely unknown country of Afghanistan, is a historical novel in more ways than one. Written sixteen years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that would spark three decades of war, Caravans takes the reader even farther back than Michener's own time to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in the days just after the end of World War II. 

Part of what makes this novel so fascinating is that the reader knows more about Afghan history than Michener did while writing it and Michener knows more than the characters because he has placed a 16-year gap between them and his own time. The layers of history almost spread out before the readers' eyes, lending a poignant depth to the story. 

Michener traveled extensively in Afghanistan and when asked, often said that it was the country he most wanted to return to. His love for the Afghan people and culture shines through in this book. I wrote my college thesis on Afghanistan, have produced several television series that have aired there and traveled to Kabul last spring. I could not find a single error in Michener's work and loved the way he was able to incorporate so much fascinating history and culture into the novel while still keeping up with the fast-paced plot. I enjoyed the opening chapters in Kabul the most - Michener brilliantly captures the feelings of his main character Mark Miller, a young State Department employee. Miller experiences a mixture of awe, fear, confusion and excitement as he discovers Afghanistan. There are some beautiful moments when Miller pauses and looks out at the mountains surrounding Kabul and feels a sense of timelessness that I remember experiencing during my own time there. 

But Caravans isn't just a history lesson or a travel essay - it also has an engaging plot set in motion by a young American girl named Ellen Jaspar who meets an Afghan student, falls in love and marries him against her parents' wishes. After returning to Afghanistan, Ellen disappears and it's Miller's job to trek across the deserts and mountains to find her. Ellen is a kind of proto-hippie, rebelling against the structures of modern society. Placing her within the context of Afghan culture makes for some very interesting moral and sociological questions. 

Michener doesn't entirely overcome the gender bias of his own time - he makes it clear that Ellen is a flighty, manipulative girl while Miller, who seduces a nomad girl and then abandons her with barely a look backwards, is just doing what men do. There are also some disturbing moments early on when Miller seems excited rather than repelled by seeing women in burkas. From a historical perspective, it's interesting to see how people viewed the question of women wearing hijab prior to major US involvement in the region but I was turned off by Miller's obvious "Oriental" fantasies. Despite these reservations, I would strongly urge readers to give Caravans a try - you'll barely notice how much you're learning about Afghanistan in the course of an exciting story. 


Libby said...

Wow! I have never heard of this book - but, it sounds really good! I read Michener's Alaska earlier this year.

Very cool that you have actually been to Kabul!

Marg said...

I haven't read a Michener book for years! I have such fond memories of them though.

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