(1991) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Swiss American author Alex Ullmann. The story concerns a young magazine editor who, following a series of personal setbacks, decides to travel through Europe and eventually to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are in the middle of civil war following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Despite the title, the protagonist never actually makes it to Afghanistan. For Afghanistan
, Ullmann won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction given out by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Tragically, Ullmann died of leukemia at the age of 34 the year after he published Afghanistan
Twenty-something Patrick Scheffler lives in Manhattan, New York and works as an editor at Glee
, a glitzy fashion magazine published by Kuratkin, a Russian immigrant. Kuratkin is also the grandfather of Irina Albers, Patrick's girlfriend of two years. In his 80s, Kuratkin suffers severe dementia, hallucinating "as if he were inhabiting all the different periods of his life simultaneously." Patrick dreams of a life of adventure like the one enjoyed by his colleague, Steyer, a journalist who has been to Afghanistan many times to report on freedom fighters there.
When Kuratkin finally passes away, the family is thrown into turmoil. Irina's drug-addicted, alcoholic brother, Michael, spins even further out of control, holing up in France to research his grandfather's life. Not long after the funeral, Patrick decides this is the right moment to make a marriage proposal to Irina. She rejects his proposal and, furthermore, suggests that they stop seeing each other altogether. Patrick's despair worsens when he is the victim of a brutal mugging near his apartment. Fed up by the violence and despair of Manhattan and disillusioned by the superficiality of the cocaine- and cocktail-fueled parties of his friends, Patrick decides to go on an adventure. First, he plans to go to Switzerland to write an article about the ski resort of Giffern. After that, Patrick will go to Provence to write about a tiny market village near Arles. Finally, he wants to go to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to capture photos for Steyer—and to capture some of Steyer's dangerously adventurous spirit for himself.
Nevertheless, when he arrives in Switzerland, Patrick does little more than reminisce about his childhood there. He visits his hometown, a mountain village of wealthy families, although his father's family is not wealthy. There, he wrestles with the resentment for his heritage that his American mother imbued in him.
Indeed, Patrick never even makes it to Giffern, let alone Afghanistan—although it is an open question as to whether he would have had the courage to carry out that leg of the trip. Instead, Irina contacts him by telephone. She begs Patrick to travel to the South of France to rescue Michael, whose addictions continue to spiral as he obsesses over his grandfather's history. Up to this point, Patrick has narrated most of the story as he reflects on the past few months from a train station in Montreux.
When Patrick tracks down Michael, Michael is in a state of utter debauch. He has also discovered several fascinating stories about his grandfather. Patrick's mission is to smuggle Michael out of France, where he is wanted for crimes relating to his drug and alcohol abuse. What ensues is a series of madcap misadventures as Patrick babysits and transports this "drug-crazed fugitive." In the end, succeeding in his mission, Patrick looks back on how his experiences over the previous months have transformed him: " Life makes sense not when reason tells you that everything is as it should be. Life makes sense when some imponderable and apparently random event confirms your most irrational prejudices."
In its review, Publishers Weekly
writes, "That's the essence of Afghanistan
(the title comes from the images of derring-do brought to Patrick's attention by a globe-trotting friend); but it doesn't begin to do justice to its sweet nature, its life-enhancing spirit. Only a young man could have written it—albeit a young man with an inordinate amount of easy and entirely justified self-confidence in his talent."