December 29 2006 (07:28:00)
Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages.
This is an adventure novel for our times. Set in Pakistan and Afghanistan late in 2001, the story involves a reporter named Stan Kelly, or "Skelly," and his "fixer," Najeeb. Najeeb is the character of the title. His father is a great malik in the mountains across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, but Najeeb is estranged from his father. Having been educated in America but brought up in the Pashtun tribal world, Najeeb is hired by journalists to interpret, guide, and protect them from dangers they can only partially understand. He is a fixer, and without a fixer a Western journalist will perish in this jungle.
Skelly is sent to Pakistan in the hope that he can get into Afghanistan and report on the developments there. Osama Bin Laden, that most wanted criminal of the Western world, is said to be at large in the mountains. This could be the story of Skelly's career, and he is excited to be after it. Skelly's been moldering stateside trying to live a more normal life than that of a foreign "hack." The life of a foreign correspondent, however uncomfortable and inconducive to success with one's family, has gotten into his blood, and he yearns to be back in the thick of danger and intrigue.
Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, couldn't be a more dangerous or intriguing place. This is the small, backward nation of warlords and the Taliban, the underdeveloped third-world country that -- in spite of its poverty and lack of modern technology, bled the Soviet Union for years as it tried to dominate this land. Afghanistan may have been a much more powerful force than the saber-rattling of NATO, Reagan, and the Free World in causing the demise of the hammer and sickle. But the United States of America, having suffered the unforgiveable obscenity of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, seemed to have no choice but to take action against the Taliban. The Taliban could be seen as the protectors of Osama, and as such they were a valid, organized enemy that could be militarily attacked and definitively beaten -- at least in theory -- while Osama seemed and seems today like a foul smelling cloud of smoke: offensive, harmful, fatal, yet elusive and impossible to grab, grasp, confine, or destroy.
Skelly and Najeeb manage to get a ride into Afghanistan with the rear guard of a returning warlord. Almost immediately they are involved in a firefight, things fall apart, and begin to get truly complicated. As the plot progresses, Najeeb's family is involved, old resentments are brought to the surface, and a layer of intrigue is added. Added to the mix is the presence of certain shady American characters, Hartley and Pierce*, who remind us of the involvement of our own political and industrial interests and the role they play in the larger tragedy engendered by Western Imperialism, the clash of cultures, and the disingenuous liars on all sides.
Meanwhile, back in Peshawar, Najeeb's girlfriend is trying desperately to escape the bonds of purdah and escape to rejoin her lover. A series of mysterious threatening notes to Najeeb and the death of a malang, a sort of Pashtun holy recluse, by murder, make another frightening subplot. And I haven't mentioned the involvement of shady characters from the ISI, a very loosely defined Pakistani intelligence-gathering organ.
I turned these pages rapidly, and enjoyed The Warlord's Son immensely. I see that Mr. Fesperman has written a few others. I'll have to give one or more of them a try.
*It's interesting to get a glimpse into the fiction writer's mental process. "Hartley" and "Pierce" are names given to certain electronic oscillator circuits. Mr. Fesperman may have a little engineering in his background, or perhaps it's just a coincidence. But the observation is just too irresistible.
For more information about Hartley and Pierce oscillators, read Sine Wave Oscillators, by J.B. Calvert, an article posted on the University of Denver's website.
* Pashtuns of Afghanistan, an article at Afghan-Network.net
* The Rise and Fall of the Taliban, an article at Afghanland.com
* Pakistan Maps, and Afghanistan Maps at the University of Texas at Austin
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