Hitting the road, from Muslim Africa to the spiritual side of Spain
Books by Norman Lewis, Peter Carey and others
The Washington Post Book World
February 6, 2005
The intrepid Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Tayler's Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel (Houghton Mifflin, $25) is a brilliantly evocative, necessary portrait of some of Africa's poorest countries, countries that, he suggests, may abet our next catastrophe.
"In 'empire' after 'kingdom' after 'empire' across the Sahel" the blighted region that is home to Chad, Niger, Mali and other limping nations "I was finding goats and donkeys and people eking out a meager life on nearly dead land," he ruminates after a Malian offers to show him an ancient king's village. He is, in other words, finding desperation: a hungry, raw and increasingly anti-Western climate.
That is the overall impression the book leaves. But the paramount reason to join Tayler on his journey is the Arabic- and French-speaking author's close-up encounters. "You Americans attack Arabs everywhere now," a frowning imam told him. Discussing marriage and family with a friendly Chadian, he was told, "We will die when God wills." Surly officials shook him down. In one hypnotic scene, he watched tribal Tuareg people dance in the desert. Angry Wind is a splendid work of cinema verité between two covers.
And although Tayler is no political scientist he took his trip, moreover, before the Iraq war the voices of frustration he records should not be ignored. U.S. forces have recently trained Sahelian countries to pursue militants who operate inside their borders. That is well and good. But is Tayler's disgruntled imam joining the fight?
Standing Next to God
One of history's more pleasant truisms is that yesterday's inscrutable foe is sometimes today's benign friend. No country in modern times fits this bill better than Japan, which these days is better known for its "soft power" its exports, films, comic books and cartoon characters than suicide pilots. Looking for Neverland? Try Tokyo.
Tokyo is where we find the Booker Prize-winning Australian novelist Peter Carey and his 12-year-old, Japanophile son, Charley, in Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey With His Son (Knopf, $17.95). In a warm gesture of parental generosity, Carey took his shy boy on a guys' trip-cum-reporting assignment, using his celebrity capital to land interviews with manga (comic book) and film luminaries.
But that's where things went awry for the elder Carey. The Japanese artist-savants rebuffed his every theory about the visual forms that so enthralled his son. Where, for instance, the writer saw in the anime series "Mobile Suit Gundam" "children at war, isolated within the belly of the beast, alienated from each other," a company representative demurred. "She thinks that being a pilot in a Mobile Suit is exactly like being inside a womb," a translator told him. Episode after dissonant episode like this makes up the book.
Which is the problem. Bafflement may be a useful conceit in fiction, but in nonfiction, one wants more conclusiveness, instead of lines like "once I was in Japan, I understood that, as a foreigner, I could never know the truth." That's a silly notion, and one, moreover, that would surely delight some Japanese.
Carey would have been wiser, anyway, to forsake sociology and stick to his travels with Charley, which are aptly drawn and full of pathos. "Then, somehow, there was Mrs. Miyagi with her camera," Carey writes, "and there was Charley standing next to God" in this case, anime director Hayao Miyazaki, the auteur of "Spirited Away." "I never wondered how that might have happened," he adds, "but when the flash went off I knew my son had the biggest prize of all." For once, he is utterly right about Japan.
Seven Decades in the Making
For the late Norman Lewis "the father of modern travel writing," according to Julian Evan's introduction to this book it started as a simple plan: accompany his brother-in-law Eugene to the family tomb in Seville, Spain. But this was in 1934, and in those pre-Civil War days, no trip in Spain was simple, and little for Lewis went according to plan.
Thank goodness. The Tomb in Seville (Carroll & Graf, $20) is all the richer for its recorded nuisances, the duo's detours through Portugal and around Spain, and their skirting of real danger. Lewis's literary acumen is perhaps matched only by his bravery. "The Assault Guards clenched their teeth and raised their rifles," he writes, recalling an incident in Madrid. "In ten seconds the Puerta del Sol was a desert." If some travel books are films or photographs, Lewis's is a slowly developing Polaroid, in which one sees the beginning images of Spain's nightmare.
This is the last book by Lewis (he must have saved his notes), who died in 2003 at the age of 93. It supports the old master's dignified reputation, and his observations are both sweet and refreshingly free of introspection. He reveled in the natural world and the gentle encounter; one plangent chapter finds him sharing wine from stone jars with Portuguese girls in a third-class train cabin.
And the eponymous tomb? Let's just say it wasn't what he or Eugene was expecting. No matter. The journey is a better read than the destination.
A Metaphysical Tune-up
While manifold juries continue to debate the death of God, travelers continue to seek Him, notably on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, which houses at its terminus the remains of St. James.
On this storied route, we find British travel writer Tim Moore working out a set of low-grade existential kinks though why he chose this particular route for a metaphysical tune-up remains a mystery to me. "As a cop-out cynic, what did I believe in?" Moore asks himself before hitting the trail with a borrowed pack-donkey named Shinto. By the end of Travels with My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago (St. Martin's, $24.95), Moore had cultivated patience and frugality, but finished his walk only a little less cynical about faith. "They were Jim fans," he writes, observing pious pilgrims, "and in the final analysis, we weren't."
"We" includes the many co-walkers he met on his trip, and these encounters are the book's highlight. "Oh God," complained a Welsh woman at the end of a day. "My big toe is just one huge well, have a look."
A travel book should pulse with encounters like these and with local color. But the near absence of the latter ingredient unfortunately renders the Spanish merely part of the scenery. Moore barely spoke Spanish, and, bound by travel hostels' curfews, he was cut off from nightlife. He is good on the histories of the country and the camino, but a traveler should give us more.
The book's saving grace is the author's often ribald and very British humor. Sleep is disturbed at "quarter to sodding five," and his misadventures with Shinto make for some laugh-out-loud material. Moore also directs his wit inward, labeling himself a "spiritual pygmy."
A pity, that. But if he's really interested in finding the Almighty, perhaps his next trip should be to Muslim Africa. There, I hear, God is alive and well.