Kabul by M. E. Hirsch (Atheneum: $19.95)
Even after six years of Soviet occupation, Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, is still hardly a household word. But fiction can often make remote realities more immediate, and M. E. Hirsch's novel is a heartfelt and commendable attempt to personalize and make sense of the Machiavellian intrigues leading up to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Hirsch engrosses the reader and dramatizes political machinations by telling the story of a prominent fictional Afghan family, the Anwaris. Omar Anwari is an incorruptible member of the king's cabinet, respected even by the opposition. He is, however, busy and distant, and his American wife, Catherine, referees the sibling rivalry of their three children.
Mangal, the proud, arrogant, but ultimately honorable, elder son, is a dissident with his own political ambitions; Saira, the confused 20-year-old daughter, is fresh from Radcliffe and a disastrous affair with Jeffrey, a leftist student leader; Tor, the younger son, is, at 18, incorrigibly self-centered and headstrong, and jealous of Mangal. Tor's affair with Karima, the family servants' daughter, has just been discovered, but he will never be allowed to marry her.
In 1973, on the day of Mangal's wedding to women's rights crusader Roshana, the Anwari family is torn apart by personal crises even as the country is about to be ripped by the first of many political crises. Omar announces that he is resigning from his cabinet post over an issue involving his honor. Mangal, who with Roshana has been publishing a clandestine opposition newspaper, is asked by Daoud Khan, King Zaher's cousin, to join a coup against the king. Tor gets drunk on cognac he finds in Saira's luggage, reads her "Dear Jane" letter from Jeffrey, and revenges himself on the entire family by revealing her secret, a shame that prevents her from marrying her Afghan sweetheart.
Up to this point, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Mangal, however, soon shows his compassionate side when he and Roshana, alone aware there will be a coup, insist that Saira go to New York immediately. Saira misunderstands and feels rejected. Caught between traditional morality and the American impulse to freedom, she becomes so self-pitying and angry at her family that by the time she unwittingly betrays her brother to her Soviet lover, one wishes she would think of the consequences of her actions.
Tor, who is sent to Moscow University as a punishment, becomes a notorious and cynical black marketeer. He is irredeemably obnoxious until his liaison with Elizabeth, a British student, turns into love. He helps her smuggle dissident manuscripts out of the Soviet Union, an act of love and courage that foreshadows a task he alone can perform when he returns to Afghanistan.
Hirsch's interestingly flawed Afghans are believable as characters, but not as Afghans. Their dialogue is pure colloquial American, which, ironically, may make them more accessible to the general reader, though the three children read like spoiled, psychologically tormented yuppies rather than Afghans with a passion for freedom and a sense of poetry.
One of the book's strengths is Hirsch's excellent research. She skillfully and subtly weaves the politics of prewar Afghanistan into her narrative, held together by the thread of the Anwari family's intimate involvement in their country's destiny. Various characters accurately present many points of view, from Islamic fundamentalism to Afghan nationalism to the tilt toward socialism of many educated women fighting for rights. The last is extremely well-portrayed by Roshana, the strongest, warmest and most truly Afghan of all the characters.
"Kabul's" plot is tightly woven, but some elements strain credulity. Strings of coincidence are weak, and the ending, which is hasty, contrived, and overoptimistic, begins to unravel. But perhaps this is an accurate reflection of today's Afghanistan, torn by dissension, confusion and misplaced good intentions.