Thursday, September 07, 2017

Book Notes: Return of a King by William Dalrymple

Having been deeply impressed by Dalrymple's "From the Holy Mountain", I was delighted to see his epic, "The Return of a King", in the massive second hand book sale in Edinburgh, run annually by Christian Aid. As an aside, I gather that the rather sedate-looking book-sale has been plagued by controversy of late. Apparently professional book-sellers have been accused of buying up the bargains, in order to re-sell them at higher prices elsewhere! If true, that is pretty shameless on the part of the book-traders, considering the good that Christian Aid do around the world, and the bargains that the public are being deprived of, from books which have been donated!

I settled down with this Dalrymple' volume on a long-haul flight this summer, and was transfixed by what I read; almost transported in fact, to another time, and place. This is historical writing at it's very best; a well-researched, beautifully written account of events which have huge resonance with the present time.

The book begins with an account of two feuding dynasties in Afghanistan in the early decades of the 19th Century, The Sadozais and The Barakzais. It then explores both British and Russian spying and intrigues in the region; as both jostled in the 'great game' for colonial dominance in India. With an eye for great character sketches, and an eye for detail, Dalrymple demonstrates how the British (Under the guise of the East India Company - the great Colonial Qango) were drawn into supporting Sadozai leader Shah Shuja, and helping to restore him to power in Kabul, with a supporting British invasion in 1842. In return the opposing Barakzais, and their leader Dost Mohammad, were able to unite the disparate groups in Afghanistan under the badge of Islam and jihad, to rally and radicalise against their enemies who ruled with British (ie. infidel) support. The disastrous defeat of the British invasion force, was a massive blow to the proud Imperial British, who acted to re-invade and inflict severe reprisals on the country, for what they saw as its defiant impudence!

What makes this book really live is the sparkling prose, with which Dalrymple delights the reader, and with which he is able to present great details and serious research, without getting bogged down. There's more than that though; it is also the character studies of people such as Dost Mohammad, Shah Shujah, Alexander Burnes, Robert Sale, Lady Sale, William Macnaughten and so many others, are also so well sketched and woven into the narrative, that the reader is instinctively hooked, fascinated and intrigued by their unfolding biographies. Additionally the numerous obvious parallels with the recent western invasion of Afghanistan are the reason Dalrymple went to Afghanistan to research this book in the first place. It seems the lessons the British were taught in 1842 were forgotten by the time Soviet Russia sought to conquer Afghanistan, and forgotten again even more swiftly in the post 9/11 invasion. Failures to plan for the post-conflict era, failures to equip troops properly, failures to understand the local ideology, failures to deal with the geography, failures to understand the complex inter-tribal politics, (and so forth), dogged the British invasion in 1842, exactly as the recent invasion was.

Even though it is now several weeks since I finished reading this book, there are scenes in it which I can still see in my mind; such is the clarity and power of Dalrymple's writing. It is quite simply an outstanding read. Perhaps another reason I so valued this book was that it opened up a whole area of unexplored history for me. There are certain areas of history which I have read a fair bit about (such as Victorian Society, American Civil Rights, Church History); but I am shockingly ignorant about the early stages of The British Empire in general, and about Afghanistan in particular. Dalrymple is a reliable, meticulous and hugely engaging guide to this still hugely relevant subject.

On the dust jacket there is a commendation for the book from Maya Jasanoff, who writes, "Dalrymple researches like a historian, thinks like an anthropologist and writes like a novelist". Too often, such commendations merely set the reader up for an anti-climactic disappointment with the actual contents of the book/ I think though, in this case, such astute praise is well deserved.

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