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My Archived Reviews


The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King – The First American In Afghanistan, by Ben Macintyre; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 350 pp?? (galley); $24 (??) Please check date with final published copy.

originally published Sunday, May 16, 2004

Josiah Harlan was an amazing fellow: both as an adventurer and as a shameless humbug. Born in 1799 Philadelphia of Quaker stock, Harlan took passage at twenty on a ship to India, where, having picked up a few tricks from his physician brother, and spurned by his Philadelphia sweetheart, he set out for India, passed himself off as a doctor, and vowed never to return.

This began an epic journey -- serving as a British physician in the Burmese war of 1824 -- thence to Afghanistan and, ultimately, to the left hand of the Afghan King and a kingdom he would never rule, as Prince of Ghor.

Harlan, states the authors, was the model for Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Man Who Would Be King” but, really, Harlan is far more interesting than that.

Possessed with an unnatural amount of chutzpah, a keen intellect and an almost insanely fearless constitution, Harlan left the employ of the British, befriended the deposed king of Afghanistan, Shah Shujah, and negotiated a deal wherein Harlan would get to rule a province (if not the whole of “Avghanistan”) in return for restoring Shujah to the Afghan throne.

Harlan’s trip through the then-barely-known lands between the Indian frontier and the capitol city of Kabul was epic, as he met the sitting king, Dost Mohammed Khan, all the while following and dreaming in Alexander the Great’s footsteps. In many places, Harlan would be the first European people had ever seen. At one point, he disguised himself as a Moslem holy man, an act of astonishing gall that he somehow pulled off.

Harlan managed, through a combination of cunning, guile, intelligence and sheer brass to rise to power, first as governor for a powerful Sikh maharajah, and, finally, as the trusted general of the Afghan king, fighting against the British and their attempt to install his former patron Shujah as the Afghan king.

Returning to the USA, this “Lawrence of Afghanistan” Harlan sought fame and fortune by publishing a book so relentlessly critical of British imperial designs in Afghanistan that it killed his burgeoning literary career right out of the gate. It didn’t matter that he was tragically correct.

Harlan turned his attentions to introducing camels to the American West, to introducing Afghan grapes, and even raising a cavalry regiment in the Civil War.

Finally, in San Francisco, the old quack returned to his “medical practice” cheerfully unfettered by law or licenses, trading in his self-appointed honorific as “General” Harlan for “Doctor” Harlan.

It is an astonishing story, unearthed by London reporter Macintyre, even to finding the unpublished memoir and the moldering “deed” to Harlan’s kingdom.

If there is a flaw to this gripping book, it is that author Macintyre spends more time looking down his nose at Harlan’s admittedly florid prose than in really “getting inside” Harlan. He keeps an unnecessary distance -- tending to judge the book by its cover, but what a cover it is. There is an unneeded English fawning on Kipling that is, really, unnecessary to understanding this eccentric American original.

The point that isn’t lost, though, is the lesson that, while Afghan tribes constantly bicker, they historically unite when invaded, over at least two millennia: “Macedonian, Mogul, Persian, Russian, British and Soviet armies had all tried, and failed, to control the Afghan tribes.” It remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself.

But, as we witness here, we ought not be surprised if it does.