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Word Count: 877
The Cabool cotillion The Mulberry Empire Philip Hensher 560pp Flamingo 1799 Composing the final sentences of his novel on Good Friday 2001 Philip Hensher could not have known that by the time The Mulberry Empire was published the name of the place he was writing about the jewelled city of Kabul would once again be on everyones lips And while postcolonial awareness means that London isnt dancing the Cabool Cotillion as it did some 160 years ago the progress of history also means that todays power reshuffle has cost thousands more Afghani lives than the ill-starred British adventure of 1839 The novel starting some few years before that date moves between Afghanistan on the one hand and Britain and Russia the two powers vying to possess it on the other Alexander Burnes who is on a geographical expedition waits in a Kabuli house for an audience with the Amir Dost Muhammad Khan prince of the Afghans When Burnes returns to London and publishes Travels into Bokhara and Cabool he is received by royalty feted by society loved by Bella Garraway and crystalised into an apologist for benevolent and expanding imperialism He returns to the east as an agent of empire The counterpoint to the triumphal public outward-bound - and ultimately disastrous - movement of imperial expansion is the disgrace and retreat into the countryside of Bella Garraway But in her banishment with her life pared down to essentials among which tellingly are 500 books and a sofa on which to read them Bella finds true love and happiness The story of Bella in her ruined moated castle its unused rooms still with false memories chimes with the story of an Afghani woman Jamila also the beautiful one And the story of Jamila whose lover loses her by going out to seek wealth before returning too late to claim her is in its turn a contrast to the story of Akbar who acts
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