Doris Lessing, The Wind Blows Away Our Words (London: Picador and NY: Random House, 1987).
The travel book that touches on the political is a tricky genre. At its best it enables the author, freed from the constraints of formal narrative and factual analysis, to present a special insight into a society in turmoil and into his or her encounter with the protagonists. The anecdotal and the experiential can provide a unique access. The contrasting accounts of China in the 1930s by Edgar Snow and Peter Fleming are classics of this kind: more recent examples might be Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, Ryszard Kapuscinski, James Fenton at his more considered, the Naipauls at their less dyspeptic.
However, when the subjective becomes intrusive, and the commitment to inform is misplaced, such accounts can be tiresome indeed, vapid narratives of one feckless conversation after another, laced with scraps of local detail and amateur philosophizing on time, life, landscape, tummy troubles and fatigue. Afghanistan seems to be the latest country to attract such misplaced lucubration, at least if this book is anything to go by.
Doris Lessing, who seems to have lost much of the perceptiveness and clarity of her earlier works, visits the areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan and reports on her meetings with resistance leaders in Peshawar and its environs. She is graphic on the horror of the war, and has some pointed observations about the place of women in Islamic societies. But her account is lacking in any helpful insight into what is happening in Afghanistan itself, of the forces at work there, or of how Afghan society has changed under the impact of the war.
Part of her trouble is that she obviously knows nothing about the history of the country itself. Thus dates and names from recent history are carelessly presented. She seems to believe anything she is told about the resistance, even writing at one point about a resistance leader who has 13 tanks and 600 planes. At another she reports, seemingly with a straight face, that the Pushtuns are really Jews, and towards the end of her account there are some observations about Soviet support from Khomeini that are simply nonsense.
Lessing makes play of her radical past in Africa, but when it comes to talking about Afghans and Pakistanis (“The Pakistanis are also beautiful people in a different way: easy, charming, good-natured…and lazy”) it is of the dreamy condescension of Karen Blixen that we are reminded, one in which natives are stroked on the head, and written about as if they were tame animals. Doris Lessing’s book begins with a myth, of a rather incoherent kind, and one cannot escape the feeling that the rest of the book follows on in the same absentminded vein.
The book tells us nothing about the seamier side of the Afghan resistance, the role of tribes and tribal structure in the war and the allocation of wealth, guns and power; the systematic castration and mutilation of prisoners of war; the heroin trade; the destruction of schools and health centers inside Afghanistan. Nor does it help us to understand the course of events in that country, since such things as history, change and the broader context are irrelevant. This book is an example of how not to do it.