Saturday, August 9, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "An Afghanistan Picture Show": Book Review

Taking place in 1982 and published in its original form a decade later, this account of a hapless pilgrim's progress feels doomed from the start. Vollmann finds early in his career his penchant: a self-deprecating but idealistic and erudite narrator based on himself, a smart depiction of this blundering, determined fellow as he encounters far-flung or down-and-out people who while they lack his book-smarts gain in commonsense, endurance, and/or basic coping skills, a fascination with amassing historical facts and transcripts of interviews about his chosen milieu, and a refusal to organize this material into other than a bricolage of assembled pieces that go on exactly as long as he wants them to, despite the reader's or editor's wish for concision or less running commentary. This is part of Vollmann's presence, always.

With Afghanistan having surged back then, when the mujahadeen sought the aid of Reagan-era allies and long before the Taliban came to its own power, let alone the events since, the timeliness of this paperback edition as the U.S. prepares to draw back from another campaign in a difficult geopolitical terrain is enhanced by Vollmann's brief introduction, looking back on the stubborn young man who comes to Pakistan determined to cover the rebellion against the Soviets. His "picture show" of photos (not included) and his prose version as "slides" in short chapters, mostly taking place then, helps the reader visualize (a few drawings are included, and it's noteworthy that these appear to be more finely executed than many maps and self-drawn sketches in his other and later works) the harsh scenes.

Amidst these, he draws faces. He comes to admire those he meets, and he puts down his own resilience as he is far outmatched in the heat by the natives. He knows he plays a role, that of the American beseeched by many to get visas, to write appeals, to hand out money, to be the object of unrelenting attention (that latter irritation is particularly well narrated). He persists in his attempt to try to raise awareness, and later funds, to help, even as he knows the futility of his moral mission.

The pace of this, as this sums up its pages, can lag. As he nears the actual contact with the rebels (and this is blurred to protect those involved, and is deliberately smudged, to drain it of some of its impact), the inclusions of lengthy interviews with the dissidents (from two identically named but opposing factions for Islamic Unity, a foreshadowing of what will follow in that nation under warlords and fanaticism, perhaps) do slow the progression down markedly. The Young Man he is tries to uncover more about the situation, but neither The General whom he admires nor the Reliable Source whom he implores can fill him, naive and unimportant as he is, in on much. Vollmann weighs in to judge this as a weaker book. It has not appeared before in paperback so the delay may prove it...

Still, for admirers of Vollmann's fiction and non-fiction, this has its moments. The episode of learning to cross the rivers of Alaska with his friend Erica holds power, and shows the sustained interest Vollmann has had in both the icy and the dusty barren landscape. Considered loosely as part of a trilogy that began with his debut novel You Bright and Risen Angels and furthered into his study of justifications for violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, this book addresses congruent themes. When does one fight an unjust system? How far can one go in compromise of integrity to advance policy for practical gain? What cost does the individual suffer as part of a collective effort?
(Amazon US 5-2-14)

No comments: