cover image An Afghanistan Picture Show, Or, How I Saved the World

An Afghanistan Picture Show, Or, How I Saved the World

William T. Vollmann. Farrar Straus Giroux, $22 (268pp) ISBN 978-0-374-10105-3

There are no pictures in this picture show but, in the spirit of photography, there are glimpses of a world frozen in time. The prolific young author of five other books is at his most precocious here, recounting his travels in 1982 in Pakistan and Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Vollman brings to the tangled politics of the Middle East his own very American brand of idealism: ``If you had a message for the Americans, what would it be?'' he constantly asks. Yet his courting of exiled generals, rebels and politicos--all in an effort to cross the border into the hills of Afghanistan--is informative. We learn of the great boredom that reigns in the refugee camps, and we see the abject poverty in the streets of Peshawar. What the work lacks is a coherent analysis of local and global politics being fought out. Instead, the reaction is all heart, guts and anti-Soviet sentiment. Though Vollmann who appears almost exclusively in the third person as `the Young Man' is gently self-mocking and skeptical about American interests in the region, his report adds little to the standard State Department view that Soviet intervention was cruel and unsupported by the people. The book would have had more impact a few years ago, when Afghanistan was caught up in the Cold War. Still, readers following the current realignments in Kabul will recognize some of the rebels who figure in Vollmann's account. There is also a detailed chronology. (July)