Alexander’s lost diaries

2009-11-04 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

House of War

Hamilton Wende

Penguin

THIS author is American-born, South African-bred, and he has travelled widely as a journalist through most of the world’s “hottest” areas.

This, his sixth book, is technically a novel. However, it also has the ­qualities of a fascinating travelogue combined with ancient history.

Using the tried-and-tested plot structure of the quest, it takes a group of disparate and interesting characters on a dangerous trip through ­Uzbekistan to Northern Afghanistan in search of the lost Royal Diaries of Alexander the Great.

During the journey, a hesitant ­love-affair slowly develops between the ­academic ex-Rhodesian Sebastian, who has a dark personal secret hounding him, and Claire the ­American journalist with some ­uneasy CIA links; and there is Professor Abdulov, formerly of the KGB, who acts as guide and is a highly colourful personality.

Interlaced with the main plot is a winding skein composed of brief but vivid sketches of the astounding ­career of Alexander who, over two thousand years earlier, had also reached Afghanistan on his own driven quest to reach the outer Ocean ­believed to surround the world. As backdrop to both stories stands the stark, battle-scarred magnificence of central Asia.

Wende has not only had first-hand experience of most of the places he describes but also knows his Alexander, and has woven these various ­elements into a gripping story which is also full of geographical and historical interest.

Among the characters, Sebastian tends to take centre stage, with his traumatic recurring flashbacks to a family tragedy that occurred during the Rhodesian War, and it becomes clear that his quest is really a search for personal salvation. Alongside him, in a way, runs the distant career of Alexander. It is not always clear whether the events of Alexander’s life are meant to parallel those of ­Sebastian’s; but the two do run beside each other like two different but vaguely similar musical themes.

At times, the psychology and interactions of the characters struck me as slightly simplistic. But overall, the book is competently written, exciting and informative, with some excellent descriptive writing.

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