The robed mystic, a sort of padre to the Afghan troops fighting with the Allied forces against the Taliban, was asked why there was so much fighting in his homeland. "Because there are so many Westerners here," he replied with a logic that could not be faulted. Hennessey, one of the aforesaid Westerners, did not flinch from this verdict.
Kandak is a story of fighting, as was the innocuously titled The Junior Officers' Reading Club, Hennessey's account of how he went to Sandhurst and then on to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan as an officer in the Grenadier Guards, initially armed with nothing more than an English degree and an honestly articulated desire to see action.
Kandak, too, is the older brother to The Junior Officers' Reading Club. The latter is a tale of action, the former is the result of reflection. Strangely, perhaps, the first book is the more cohesive, the more assured.
Hennessey, then, was a young soldier eager for glory, energised by contact with the enemy and deeply engaging with a self-deprecation that could not disguise his facility for writing. In contrast, Kandak regularly lacks purpose, covers similar ground to much of Junior Officers' and can be overly sentimental. However, it has a substantial value.
Hennessey, who shows a familiarity with chunks of literature, may be aware of the sentiment of "you can't go home again" as espoused by Thomas Wolfe but has resisted any notion not to revisit Afghanistan and the local soldiers with whom he served.
The writer must have been under pressure to produce Junior Officers II after the commercial and critical success of the first book, and he has been waylaid by many of the problems that beset a sequel. The main difficulty, of course, is how to be like the first book without being the same. However, Kandak, in spite of and sometimes because of its flaws, remains a story of value and is finely written on occasion. It carries an ambiguity in tune with the land it inhabits and the warriors who populate it.
A more mature Hennessey writes more carefully, makes judgments at a slower pace and moves with more caution. This may dismay some fans of his earlier book but it makes Kandak more interesting if occasionally unfocused. The portraits of the Afghans he served with are brilliantly created. Kandak can be translated as a battalion but the characters defy simple description. One officer was, for example, labelled as a bully and a possible thief in Hennessey's first book but emerges as a fearsome warrior of genuine integrity in the second.
There is a constant attempt to understand and explain the Afghan trooper, who is often dismissed as lazy and inefficient. Hennessey, now a barrister after retiring from the army, is reluctant to make definitive judgments, a result of experience and a natural intelligence. Afghanistan and its soldiers cannot be reduced to sound bites but are also resistant to an ultimate understanding.
The literate Hennessey has a passion for Tristram Shandy which he points out has "an ill-fated beginning, a confoundingly muddled story and no coherent ending". He is not in this instance writing about Afghanistan but reader and writer know the description fits. The big brother of Kandak is not as immediately appealing as the Junior Officer, and he speaks with a diminished certainty, making this a much rougher, jolting experience.
The author is intelligent, with a cultural hinterland, a forward-looking mindset and the acceptance that, although he has a military bias, he knows there is a world beyond the parade ground or battlefield. He has, too, tolerance and an innate optimism. Yet he writes of the dynamic between Afghan and British soldier: "We thought they were lazy, they didn't believe we were really in it for the long haul. Everyone was right." And everything is still wrong.
Kandak: Fighting With Afghans
Allen Lane £16.99