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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 9th October 2004

The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher

Publisher: Flamingo

PP: 538

Price: £17.99

After reaching the end of Philip Hensher's new novel I was a little disappointed to discover that the official publication date is April 2. Shouldn't that be April 1? For The Mulberry Empire turns out to be a full-length literary pastiche. Indeed, to describe it as "full-length" scarcely does it justice. As Hensher himself says in the Acknowledgements--or, rather, in the "Errors and Obligations"--he is indebted to Antonia Byatt who told him that he should stop wasting his time on squibs and write a long novel. The Mulberry Empire weighs in at a hefty 538 pages, including an "Epilogue", a "Glossary", a "Cast List" and a "Bibliography". Needless to say, Antonia Byatt is one of the many novelists parodied in its pages.

In its choice of targets, The Mulberry Empire is more of a blunderbuss than a sniper's rifle and at times it reads as if Hensher has the whole of the English literature in his sights. At other times he seems to be homing in on the great adventure novelists of the 19th Century: Rider Hagard, Arthur Conan Doyle and, above all, Rudyard Kipling. The Mulberry Empire is set in the first half of the 19th Century and its main subject is the disastrous British adventure in Afghanistan that led to the massacre of the Army of the Indus. One of Hensher's characters even quotes Kipling's famous lines in The Young British Soldier inspired by these events: "When you're wounded an' left on Afghanistan's plains/And the women come out to cut up your remains/Just roll to your rifle an' blow out your brains/An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

Wait a second. Kipling wasn't born until 1865. How can one of Hensher's characters be quoting him? The answer is that there's a section in the middle set in 1976 called "Anthropological Interlude" in which an intrepid young traveller repeats a journey taken by one of the novel's 19th Century characters. Not only does this enable Hensher to parody the reams of travel writing based on retracing famous people's footsteps--Bruce Chatwin springs to mind--it also serves as an excuse to take aim at various contemporary novelists who use devices like this to ginger up their own historical novels. Not that he's been waiting for an excuse. From the very first chapter, when we're introduced to Dost Mohammed, the ruler of the Afghans, and told repeatedly that he's the "Lord of the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days", we're in Michael Ondaatje territory. Indeed, if Hensher has one novelist in his sights above all others it's the Booker Prize-winning Canadian and I wouldn't be surprised if The Mulberry Empire was inspired by his irritation at the success of The English Patient.

Philip Hensher, as readers of this paper will know, is one of the most waspish literary critics working today and The Mulberry Empire is the perfect solution to the problem all critics face when they decide to throw their hats into the ring. What if their own work isn't up to snuff? Will they still be taken seriously as arbiters of literary merit? Rather than risk another critical drubbing--Hensher's previous five novels have received mixed reviews--he's written a series of skits at the expense of other novelists, a 538-page battering ram aimed at the citadel of English literature. To paraphrase Clausewitz, this novel is the continuation of criticism by other means.

As a rag bag assortment of pastiches, The Mulberry Empire is a great deal of fun. At one point in the book, a literary journalist called Stokes judges a contest in which members of The Club--a 19th Century version of the Groucho--attempt to write a poem in the style of a buffoonish, versifying old Colonel. For lovers of such competitions, The Mulberry Empire will be an absolute delight. It revives an art form that, with the demise of Punch, is in danger of extinction.

But as a novel, as a compelling narrative in its own right, The Mulberry Empire is less successful. The two central characters are Alexander Burnes, a Scotch captain in the British Army, and Bella Gallaway, a beautiful, intelligent heiress. At first the reader is gulled into thinking that The Mulberry Empire is going to be a love story, but shortly after the two protagonists meet Burnes has to return to Afghanistan and their romance fizzles out. As soon as you realise they're never going to meet again, there's nothing to keep you turning the pages. Sebastian Faulkes may be a terrible old hack, as the passages parodying his epic historical style imply, but he wouldn't make a bog standard error like that.

In general, the story plays second fiddle to the literary hi-jinks. For instance, there's a long passage in the middle that purports to be a series of entries in Burnes's journal recording a long sea voyage. This does nothing to advance the plot; rather, its sole purpose is to enable Hensher to demonstrate his skill at parodying Joseph Conrad: "Even when the winds started up again--and it was as astonishing, as imprévue an event as their disappearance--we still felt becalmed, marooned, suspended in time."

Last year Philip Hensher gave a lecture at Cambridge on the art of parody and the role of pastiche in historical novels that concluded with him reading from The Mulberry Empire. If this book has a problem it's that there's too much parody and not enough art. I hate to say it, but it reads like a brilliant first draft, a cornucopia of raw material that should have been squeezed into a conventional novelistic format. Like so many contemporary British novels it suffers from woefully inadequate editing. Hensher is a supremely gifted composer of literary pastiches--perhaps the most gifted of his generation--but as this novel proves you can have too much of a good thing. Antonia Byatt was wrong: he didn't need to write a longer book, just one that contained a really good yarn. Perhaps he needs to study the great storytellers he lampoons in this novel a little more carefully.

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