Pros: Engrossing novel of wanderlust, gypsy-love, desert heat and camels, 1946 culture clash, hippie chick akimbo
Cons: Some old stereotypes, too many lucky coincidences, but basically, close to reality
Caravans, by James Michener, written in 1963 about the godforsaken place called Afghanistan, trampled upon and ransacked for thousands of years: a fantastic read if you don't mind some of the stereotypes. But hey, aren't stereotypes necessary to get a plot moving? The reader has to grip on to these characters somehow!
First of all, there's Mark Miller, an American Jewish consulate worker stationed in Kabul as the first step of his career. He is basically a conformist, a square, with his future in mind and his racial handicapp to overcome. However, he doesn't look Jewish, nor is he bearing his true family name, Muehler, so no one can accuse him of being a runaway Nazi, either. He is young, happy to be abroad, first job out of the USA, a Yale graduate, sharp and eager. We are supposed to like and root for this fellow, especially against the more sycophantic or burnt-out consulate workers stuck in Afghanistan. He has plenty of chances with the single female typists and clerks of the American and British legations, in their very insular social world, but his eyes are on the dark-skinned gypsy-like caravan traveller women, who run free without chadors. As they pass through the edges of Kabul with their camels, exuberant and uninhibited, wild and free, Mark Miller's young blood starts pounding. Fellow palefaces look sallow, insipid, conventional, and dull.
Ellen Jaspers is a Bryn Mawy dropout, a bright and beautiful suburban blonde, lusted after throughout Dorset, Pennsylvania, where she grows up with a prosperous insurance exec father, whom she despises for his bourgeouis and tedious ways. She meets an Afghan male student getting an engineering degree at Wharton, obviously loaded, as he rides around town in a turban and a red convertible. They fall in love, and so what does this 40's hippie rebel chick do? She borrows $1200, takes off for England by ship in the middle of the war, gets down to India, then up to Kabul, where she marries Mr. Afghanistan simply to bug her father. She wants to escape the vacuous life of middle-class America, get in touch with reality, hey man, wow.
(By the way, wasn't Herman Wouk's protagonist Jewess in War and Remembrance also called Ms. Jaspers, a wild spitfire who refuses to go home to the USA, seeking European adventures and men, getting stuck in WWII and the Holocaust, winds up in Auschwitz? Jeepers, these Jaspers!)
The US Embassy is hounded by the Pennsylvania senator to find this runaway, so Mark Miller is assigned to go by jeep and look for her, only to find out that life with the engineer from Wharton, and his first wife and their kids, didn't suit her - dull in the extreme, so conventional - that she up and away went off with the Kochis, a caravan group that roved through from China to India, of Indian blood, much in appearance like gypsies, stealing everything, clever and conniving, plotting and scheming...
Yes, you guessed it, now Mark Miller is off and away himself with this caravan, walking across the desert with the 91 camels and having an affair with the wild girl, the daughter of the chief, who doesn't seem to mind his daughter's deflowering as long as it is not in his own tent. Meanwhile, ELlen Japsers, blonde hair stunning in the hot, hot sun, is sleeping with the chief, as his own second wife, and of course the first one doesn't mind it.
Otto Stiglitz, University of Munich medical doctor, a Nazi who dabbled in medical experiments/torture, has documented his body-temperature lowering tests too well. The Brits are after him; if he goes to India, he'll be caught and tried, and so only in Afghanistan, as a useful immigrant, is he left in peace to work with the people for pennies. He is about 40, bitter and guilty for his past, has lost his promiscuous wife and dear children back in GErmany. Otto joins this caravan group on invitation of the chief, and promptly falls in love with the GErmanic type Ellen (think Princess Diana, all legs and hair). They, too, are having an affair before too long, which also doesn't bother anyone, including the chief, or Mark Miller, or the goats.
If all of this sounds maudlin, I have to say, it isn't - it's a great read, will keep you up all night, and it's very carefully interlarded with great historical information about Afghanistan and the entire region, its brutal history, all the invasions, Ghengis Khan, etc. The book is making a comeback, although meant to depict 1946, because of our current hankypanky there as an army. Our invasion was accurately predicted by Michener, as was the Russians' desire to grab it.
Another book about Afghanistan, from the Russian point of view as occupiers, you can also find: ZINKY BOYS. These were the soldiers coming back in zinc coffins, and it's a series of interviews with those who came back alive, how the true life was for the female doctors, the rough soldiers, the easy drug addiction, the hopelessness of "winning" the country.
Michener lived in the early 50's all around the areas he writes of. He truly seems to love it, therefore carefully describing its details. The entire issue of the women in their chadors is discussed, as is a stoning incident, complete with the boulders at the very end on the woman.
This he did witness, but not the decapitation he describes.
A movie with Anthony Quinn and Jennifer O'Neill was made in 1978, if you care to find it.
All in all, the book is excellent, but a fair bit of Herman Wouk's attitude towards women comes through: for example, although Ellen Jaspers may indeed just be a confused future suburban housewife, her intellectual questions are not light ones for her. Her lack of a diploma or career start is considered of no consequence, but any males in the story take their lives in this regard, the arena of work, seriously. Meanwhile, in contrast, the smug and righteous Mark Miller, who thinks himself a serious career diplomat and proud Yale graduate, is himself attracted to a wild and scrawny caravan gypsy girl, because she is FREE, has no hang-ups, is full of life, all the qualities that Ellen Jaspers was looking for herself. I note that Michener describes his lovemaking nights with the girl, Mira, as full of interesting Pashto conversations, with surprising insights into human nature and sharp, incisive conclusions. In other words, she is as bright as any of them, although illiterate, and a master thief/pickpocket, schemer and planner. She is as smug about her future as is Ellen, for she knows her father owns all the camels, as ELlen knows her father has tons of money. Neither has the fear of the middle and lower classes that they must mind their manners, and stay on the right side of the marriage market, not to be tainted, as marriage is the only way to survive for those without inherited wealth (as in USA at that time for most women).
In some of these older novels, which I now look for exclusively, the more traditional views of women as shown in the pens of these male writers foreshadows the entire hippie-chick phenomenon. They were young women of priviledge and education who longed for freedom, adventure, no more social restraints, who took their meals for granted. Work and career and money never obsessed them, as it does most people, so their sights turned elsewhere... to sleeping with dark men; while the male writer finds his own freedom in bedding down with the "bedoins", so to speak.
A lot of food for thought saturates this novel, especially his last-page speculations that the unsettled people of that area, who roam about in caravans to steal and trade, were simply the result of all the rampaging and destruction of previous civilizations. When whole cites were destroyed and all its inhabitants killed, why not roam? That is how John Christopher, excellent English doomsday fiction writer of the 50's, always predicted mankind's future after major destruction. Have some nan and pilauf, then read CARAVANS. Feel the desert heat, but be happy to stay at home, nice'n'comfy, plenty of water, "civilized".