An account of a trip through war-torn and poverty-stricken Afghanistan, this remarkable book could have been titled ""An Unexpected Beauty."" Elliot, who first traveled to the country as a 19-year-old enthusiast of the mujahedin, has no illusions about the inherent shortcomings of travel writing (""a semi-fictional collection of descriptions that affirm the prejudices of the day""). He also dismisses the journalistic method, which relies on a single bombed-out street in Kabul to monolithically represent an entire nation. So it is not without some self-deprecation that he offers his own strange and improbable adventures in the country's lawless stretches and perilous mountain passes. ""I had in mind a quietly epic sort of journey,"" he explains. ""I had given up on earlier and more ambitious schemes and was prepared to make an ally of uncertainty, with which luck so often finds a partnership."" Humorous, honest and wry, a devotee of Afghanistan's culture, Elliot strives to debunk the myth of ""the inscrutability of the East"" and paint, in careful detail, a portrait of a deeply spiritual people. For a first-time author, his literary talents are exceptional. His sonorous prose moves forward with the purposeful grace of a river; it reads like a text unearthed from an ancient land. (Feb.) Forecast: Already lauded in England, this book announces the arrival of a major travel writer. It should capture the hearts of armchair travelers who long for the grace, wit and irreverence of an era long gone.