May 2004

Michael Farrelly

nonfiction

The Man Who Would Be King by Ben Macintyre

It’s really rare that a book makes me high. Coming up as a straight-edge punk I never was one for imbibing any harsh chemicals, but books can lay me out like a night of Guinness. Ben Macintyre’s The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan is one of those books that just takes the air out of the room.

The story begins in 1799 with the birth of Josiah Harlan in Quaker country. At an early age Josiah had mastered several dead languages and was enraptured with the conquest stories of Alexander and the Caesars. He was also a freemason and a noted cad who left at an early age to seek his fortune in India, something common for young British men of the age but not for Americans. Harlan ended up in Calcutta where he served as surgeon for the Raj, the British authority in India. Calcutta, for all it’s exotic appeal, was not nearly as fascinating to Josiah as distant Afghanistan.

At various points in his journey into Afghan territories Harlan was a fakir medicine man, a guru, a diplomat and a conqueror. Harlan negotiated the release of hostages in one village and used the secrets of freemasonry to secure the support of the mystic in another. Oh and then he became a king of a savage Afghan tribal band at the age of 39. By the way, this is a work of non-fiction.

If this all sounds familiar it should. Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King was in no doubt inspired by Josiah Harlan’s adventures, which were just beginning to be noticed in Kipling’s time. Kipling’s story was famously turned into a film starring the strapping Michael Caine and Sean Connery. It took two of the manliest British men of the 20th century to stand in for one crazed 19th century American.

A lot of hay is being made about this book’s social relevance of this book because of the American intervention in Afghanistan. This is not really a stretch as part of Josiah Harlan’s odyssey was an attempt to bridge the gap between the western powers and Afghanistan. As King Harlan attempted to build schools in a western style and bring the British into Afghanistan not as invaders but as investors. For all his freebooting chicanery, Josiah Harlan had a more lucid policy for the Afghan people in 1838 than many of the Washington suits have today.

Macintyre clearly loves his subject, whose story is as bittersweet as it is swashbuckling. A failed love affair drove Josiah into exploring, and in some ways his search for adventure was the quest of a lover spurned. Harlan’s story ends with a steamer trunk in a rented room filled with the treasures of a lifetime. Perhaps not the most successful king in history, Josiah Harlan’s story still resonates with a deeply human urge to set your eye on the horizon and charge headlong. Harlan’s figure it out as you go along mentality is captivating to an audience living in an age where this kind of adventure would only be found in the bits and bytes of a video game.

The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre
Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374201781
368 pages