When James A. Michener died in 1997 at the age of 90, he left behind 40 books and a reputation as a popular, if not a literary, author. His famously long novels—from Hawaii to Alaska, from Centennial to Chesapeake—were reflections of both his wanderlust and his abiding respect for the history and cultures of an entire world of people. He was an orphan himself. “I feel myself the inheritor of a great background of people,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Just who, precisely, they were, I have never known. I might be part Negro, might be part Jew, part Muslim, part Irish. So I can’t afford to be supercilious about any group of people because I may be that people.”
I grew up on Michener—by the end of junior high school I had plowed through two of his fattest tomes—but until the recent wars, I had neglected his 1963 novel, Caravans. At just 336 pages, it’s a tight, talky, and wonderfully insightful piece of work set entirely in Afghanistan. The novel centers on Mark Miller, a young American diplomat stationed in 1946 Kabul, who is charged to find Ellen, a woman who married an American-educated Afghan named Nazrullah and then disappeared. He eventually finds her among a group of nomads. Miller’s traveling companion, meanwhile, is Dr. Otto Stiglitz, a Nazi war criminal.
More than forty years after the publication of Caravans, we live in a world obsessed with competing moral visions (e.g., torture is necessary when we do it, evil when they do it). But these are hardly new, as Michener suggests over and over. His characters struggle with the barbarity of traditional culture even as they are confronted with the overwhelming force and, yes, barbarity of encroaching modernism. Nazrullah, for instance, makes an impassioned speech suggesting that, for all its faults, at least Afghanistan is no Germany (i.e, we stone women and children but at least we don’t gas them).
I went to Germany at the age of twenty. Before that I’d been educated by private tutors whose main job, it seems to me now, was to impress me with the moral depravity of Afghanistan and the timeless glory of Europe. I knew no better than to accept their indoctrination at face value and reported to Germany fully prepared to exhibit my tutors’ prejudices. But when I reached Göttingen I found that the true barbarians were not the primitives who stone women in Ghazni—and we have some real primitives in this country—but the Germans. From 1938 through 1941 I remained as their guest, to witness the dreadful degeneration of a culture which might once have been what my tutors claimed but was now a garish travesty. Believe me, Miller, I learned more in Germany than you’ll ever learn in Afghanistan.
As you know, I went from Germany to Philadelphia, where half the people thought I was a Negro. What I didn’t learn in Germany, you taught me. Why do you suppose I wear this beard? Before I grew it I made a six-week experiment. I decided to be a Negro . . . lived in Negro hotels, ate in their restaurants, read their papers and dated Negro girls. It was an ugly, ugly life, being a Negro in your country . . . maybe not so bad as being a Jew in Germany, but a lot worse than being an Afghan in Ghazni. To prove to Philadelphians I wasn’t a Negro, I grew this beard and wore a turban, which I had never worn at home.
But what I love about Michener is that he doesn’t settle for the easy argument. Ellen eventually leaves Nazrullah for the Nazi Stiglitz, who converts to Islam. The Jewish Miller is forced to confront the German, while the Afghan assures him that purity—racial, moral—exists only in Hitler’s head. “If the facts were known,” Nazrullah tells Miller, “probably half our Afghan heritage is Jewish. For hundreds of years we boasted of being one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Hitler decreed us to be Aryans, which gave us certain advantages.”
Later Ellen describes her own disillusionment—with the easy bigotry of Americans during the war years, with “kept professors” whose “moral responsibility was to dissect the world” but who instead “were paid to defend it.” Her father, she explains, was one of those men.
“What I mean is, my father described anything out of the ordinary as ridiculous, and I wanted to outrage his whole petty scale of judgment. What was the most ridiculous thing I could do? Run off with an Afghan who had a turban and another wife.” She laughed a little, then added, “Do you know what started my disillusionment with Nazrullah? That turban. He wore it in Philadelphia for show. He’d never think of wearing it in Kabul.”
Of course, Ellen does top herself when she trades in her manly turban for a mixed-up Nazi. No easy answers, little room for self-righteousness—this is what I love about Michener.
IMAGE: The rugged Afghan landscape