History made readable: James Michener’s epic novels
Can there be a better source of inspiration for novelists than the expansive and colourful pageant of history, though man’s magnificent achievements, raw heroism,inspiring progress and human resilience may frequently be offset by events more inglorious and tragic? One writer who utilised the past for engrossing but insightful tales of various countries across different continents and generations was prolific American author and indefatigable traveller James A. Michener.
Michener (1907-97) had an auspicious beginning to his literary career, with his very first book “Tales of the South Pacific” (1947), based on his wartime service with the US Navy in the area and his fecund story-telling ability, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948. It also became the basis for a successful Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway and film musical.
His next few books were only moderately successful and it was not until he moved to his meticulously researched (historically, culturally and even geologically), multi-generational family sagas in particular areas or countries, leavened with historical events, facts and personages, that he became a best-selling author.
Michener’s first such foray was “Hawaii” (1959), whose various episodes – a regular staple of his works – tell of the original Hawaiians who sailed to the islands from their home in what is now French Polynesia, the arrival of American missionaries and merchants at the beginning of the 19th century, and of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. The story begins with the creation of the islands themselves at the dawn of time and ends in the mid-1950s.
Over the next four decades, Michener wrote captivating tales set in his country and elsewhere – “Caravans” (1963) about 1946 Afghanistan; “The Source” (1965), a panoramic sweep of the history of Jews and Palestine/Israel from prehistoric times to the mid-1960s; “Centennial” (1974) tracing the history of the Colorado plains down to the early 1970s; “The Covenant”, (1980) recounting the history, interaction, and conflicts between South Africa’s five disparate populations – the native Bantus, the Coloured, British, Afrikaner, and Indian, Chinese, and other foreign workers – again from prehistoric times up to the 1970s; “Poland” (1983) about the turbulent history of the Central European country which has been invaded and occupied from everyone from Mongols, Russians (Tsarist and Soviet), Germans (Imperial and Nazis), down to the eve of General Jaruzelski’s martial law as the Solidarity movement gained traction and another Soviet invasion loomed; “Caribbean” (1989) from the years before Christopher Columbus’ arrival down to the era of Rastafarianism and Fidel Castro’s Cuba; or “Mexico” (1992).
But two of Michener’s novels that will strike a chord and are amazingly relevant even now are “Caravans” and “The Source”.
The first about an Afghanistan, which will seem unfamiliar not only to us but many Afghans themselves, set as it is the halcyon days before endemic conflict engulfed the country. It deals with a young American diplomat posted in Kabul, who is driven by a US Senator to determine the fate of a young American woman, who married an Afghan, and is now “missing”.
In the process, our hero crosses tthe country, and along the way, many issues are taken up – the contrast between the “enlightened” Afghan elite, and the religious conservatives represented by the clerics, women’s rights, religious fanaticism, foreign perceptions, and the character of the Afghani people.
The enduring insight is when the American, sure of his knowledge, seeks to show the native the “correct” way of doing something, only to be gently chided by the Afghan who pointed out that they had their own way of doing things, and sometimes they might be superior.
And so many of the book’s insights and predictions that have come to pass. “When a thousand men like me have rebuilt Kabul and made it as great as The City once was, either the Russians or the Americans will come with their airplanes and bomb it to rubble,” says an Afghan character . And a tribal leader notes: “You Americans seem inordinately preoccupied with the ‘chaderi’ (the veil).”
“The Source” is in the traditional Michener format. Set in the early 1960s, it is about archeological dig in a fictional ancient mound in Israel and the various artifacts unearthed.
Then, starting with the oldest artifact, the narrative chronologically describes the inhabitants (often descendants of earlier mentioned characters) and events in and around the city, ranging from the dawn of history, the genesis and development of Judaism, the Babylonian exile, the Seluceid (Greek) and the Roman eras, the Arab conquest, the Crusades, Ottoman rule and the birth of the modern Israel. Again it has a host of penetrating insights about the interplay of religion and politics, the modern Middle East as well as about the deep-seated perceptions of Palestinians and Israelis which has made their dispute so intractable.
Michener has been criticised for his “dramatised” histories but he certainly had the ability to bring bygone eras to vivid life!