In his introduction to a 1984 fiction collection, “Slow Learner,” Thomas Pynchon admitted that he had been jarred by reading stories he had written more than 20 years earlier. At first, the pretension and the goofiness of his efforts made him want to gag and call rewrite; then, in a mood of middle-aged tranquillity, he settled into an acceptance of the younger writer he once was. “I mean, I can’t just very well 86 the guy from my life,” he explained. “On the other hand, if through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down to the street to have a beer and talk over the old times.”
A similar ambivalence informs William Vollmann’s latest work of nonfiction, “An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World.” But Vollmann does his younger self one better than lending him money or buying him a beer. A successful novelist now in his 30s, Vollmann helps a character based on his 22-year-old self, the “Young Man,” find meaning in the experiences he had on a journey to war-besieged Afghanistan in the early 1980s. As described by the Young Man, the goals of that trip were vague: to comprehend what had happened to the country as a result of the Soviet invasion and to help the Afghani people “In the Best Possible Way.” Not surprisingly, the younger Vollmann became overwhelmed by massive suffering he felt unable to ameliorate.
Vollmann’s book is a kind of “Pilgrim’s Progress” highlighting the dizzying moral ambiguities that naifs like him find in the Third World. The narrative action stretches over the course of several months, chronicling Vollmann’s arrival in Karachi and his residence in Peshawar on Pakistan’s northwestern frontier. Again and again Vollmann tries to get into Afghanistan itself--the Grail he seeks, lying just over the Khyber Pass. While waiting for his contacts in the mujahedeen to take him there, he busies himself in the bazaars and refugee camps of Peshawar, trying to learn all he can about the Afghanis’ plight. This information, the Young Man explains, will be included in “An Afghanistan Picture Show,” a photo exhibit he plans to create back in the States to raise funds for the Afghani cause. Vollmann’s fund-raising efforts were in the end ludicrously unsuccessful: One night, the money he collected from a presentation at Berkeley did not even cover the amount the university charged him for the room.
The Young Man obviously takes his mission to Save Afghanistan very seriously, asking earnest questions of relief officials in order to see the Big Picture and to decide which resistance organizations merit his help. “If only he could go tomorrow,” he says at one point. “Then he could accomplish something that much sooner.” For all his earnest urgency, Vollmann wryly concedes, the Young Man is actually a well-meaning but essentially ineffectual stumblebum who can do little but sulk and flagellate himself as his Good Aims and High Purpose dissolve in a puddle of intestinal disease and cross-cultural bewilderment.
In the end, it is Vollmann who becomes the burden, always on the receiving end of the Afghanis’ generosity. Sick with dysentery, addled by the heat and hamstrung by his own youthful rigidities, he succumbs to entropy. “Through a sad irony, he was becoming more and more like his own picture of these people whom he thought to save. It was he who was lost, questioning, thirsty and ever so far from his own land. . . . “
Vollmann the elder also pokes fun at the Young Man’s penchant for tying himself in the knots of tendentious questions. Although he is clearly anti-Soviet, the academic side of him is willing to wonder whether the Russian occupation might have some lurking progressive content in the long run. Could the homogeneity that Soviet expansionism encourages be a source of world peace, since so many of the world’s conflicts were ignited by too much cultural heterogeneity? And was it worth saving Afghanistan if, as history suggested, it was only going to be invaded again in the long run? Yet such imponderables did the Young Man no harm, we are told, since he was the kind of person who never abandoned a project he had begun “even if something convinced him he was wrong.”
While the Young Man is Vollmann’s only fully drawn character, the aggregate portrait he paints of refugee existence in Peshawar is vivid and complex. Vollmann has come to bear witness to the plight of the Afghanis, but he does not sentimentalize them. He writes honestly, for instance, about the pervasive corruption in relief operations; the wildly exaggerated expectations of refugees who think America is a land of girlfriends, apartments and Cadillacs just waiting for them; and cultural attitudes he finds unsettling.
Especially disturbing to Vollmann is the Afghanis’ treatment of women. “A camel or a water buffalo is valued more than a woman in this society,” a nurse in the camps tells him. “You can’t get a husband to donate blood for his wife because if you take his blood you take his life, but if she dies he can always get another wife.”
At first the Young Man sees the rebels romantically--"storybook De Gaulles,” he calls them. Very quickly, though, he learns of the revenge cults, the murderous paranoia, the kidnaping and the lying that taint the mujahedeen cause. “If a man were to switch political parties he would be killed,” one of Vollmann’s sources tells him. “If my informant’s party were to find out he told you this, he would be killed” adds the source. Still, despite the back-stabbing and factional intrigue, Vollmann can agree with an Afghani professor who thought factionalism was unfortunate “but did not ethically prejudice the whole.”
The best writing in the book comes in a section chronicling Vollmann’s long-awaited passage over the border into Afghanistan. In addition to capturing the austere beauty of the landscape--which in the orange evening light “resembled a photo of Mars"--Vollmann conveys the frightening, almost otherworldly joy of the mujahedeen as they fight against Soviet troops in “a series of endless night moments of happiness near death, no fear in them as I honestly believe; they had crossed their river so long ago that I could not really comprehend them as anything except heroes. . . . “
Regrettably, though, Vollmann’s accomplishments are tarnished in several substantial ways. His characteristic inventiveness with language can make sentences sound intriguing, but just as often makes them cryptic or confusing; e.g. “It is part of the fragmentation of life that after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan I wanted to go there.” There are also too many nuggets from the philosopher Wittgenstein strewn throughout the book; while some are appropriate (especially the ones questioning the ability of one human being to comprehend the inner feelings of another--a leitmotif of the book), the majority stop the forward motion of the narrative with pseudo-metaphysics.
Vollmann’s structure is also problematic. As befits its title, the book is written in fragmentary, snapshot style, ranging back and forth over time and topography. Sometimes the crosscuts work and make for powerful juxtaposition. But as often they are disjointed, affected and self-absorbed.
Vollmann also has a penchant for digressive flights of fancy, a la Pynchon. In fact, in one instance he even composes a song about “good old Peshawar” similar to the comic odes that punctuated “Gravity’s Rainbow.” (The song is funny, but clearly a rip-off.) In another instance, while in the middle of his otherwise gripping account of the battle inside Afghanistan, he sees a wooden airplane one of the guerrillas had strung up in the camp and digresses for several pages about the plane’s lost wooden pilot and his fate as he wanders behind enemy lines. All too cute, the tangent nearly smothers a scene which is essentially Vollmann’s climax.
The book’s most significant shortcoming, though, is Vollmann’s failure to explain how he became so crazed about helping the Afghanis beyond blind “save the world” humanitarianism in the first place. The question is significant: Since we are not told why he wants so desperately to help, we cannot empathize with his failure.
At one point he alludes to the death of his sister, who drowned, he says, because “I hadn’t paid attention.” Is this to mean that he has been burdened with a lifelong “rescue complex” because of his perceived irresponsibility? Is this accident his personal Patna , the ship that Lord Jim abandoned in Joseph Conrad’s novel, consigning his passengers to certain death? And why does he choose to save Afghanistan, over any number of other stricken countries? Besides his personal motivation, Vollmann also leaves unexamined why Westerners in general are so ready to relieve “exotic distress” in such faraway places like Afghanistan.
Despite its unevenness and unexplained assumptions, however, “An Afghanistan Picture Show” is a bold and original accomplishment, hardly the “Failed Pilgrim’s Progress” that Vollmann dejectedly calls it. For all his humanitarian determination and effort, Vollmann’s Young Man may not have relieved the suffering of any Afghanis. But in his honest accounts of their plight, and his morally and emotionally complicated reactions to it, Vollmann the elder has written a powerful, searching addition to the literature of personal witness.