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Broadening the mind without moving

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

Damascus: Taste of a City Marie Fadel and Rafik Schami

Haus Armchair Traveller,, pp.309, 12.99

Venice for Lovers Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein

Haus Armchair Traveller, pp.216, 12.99

Along the Ganges Ilija Trojanow

Haus Armchair Traveller, pp.266, 12.99

From Cape Wrath to Finisterre Bjorn Larsson

Haus Armchair Traveller, pp.341, 12.99

The phrase ‘armchair travel’ sounds quaint; suggestive of austerity at home and anarchy abroad; an era of currency restrictions and mustachioed bandits, when it was altogether more advisable to stay at home and read some daredevil’s account of the Damascene soukhs or the Grand Canal than risk venturing into such places yourself. But travel is now so easy that settling for its sedentary reflection looks like admitting to rather withered aspirations: so it is a surprise to see four attractively packaged books from Haus in a new series cheerfully called ‘Armchair Travellers’.

Among them is one for which I can think of no precedent, a travel book written by someone who stayed at home. The only other claimant that comes to mind is Frederic Prokosch’s The Asiatics, but that was a novel. Although the arrangement in Damascus: Taste of a City is bizarre, it is done with aplomb and it has both logic and charm. Rafik Schami grew up in Damascus but he has not lived there for 25 years. He wrote this book on the basis of extended telephone conversations with his sister, who still lives there. Together they proceed street by street through the city, visiting relatives and old haunts. He recounts all sorts of ancient tales related to the places, then always homes in on a recipe. This provides a neat structure for the book and will no doubt delight foodies.


Only the most slavish of foodies could be excited by the gastronomic content of Venice for Lovers, however. The establishments Anka Muhlstein praises sound insufferably snobbish and claustrophobic. The book consists of three essays by a married couple who have spent months in Venice every year for 30 years. They obviously love the place, but their tone of self-congratulation is such that anybody reading this book would wish to give the city a wide berth for fear of encountering these smug old ducks. But maybe this is their purpose: Muhlstein’s distaste for other tourists (presumably unwashed and uncultured) is palpable, and overshadows Begley’s engaging essays about lovers in Venice and Venice in literature. It is a shame, for these two authors are distinguished.

After my experiences with the first two, I approached the other books in the series with some trepidation, for I had no particular predisposition towards the content of either. But they are both wonderful, and the great difference between them reflects the breadth of the term ‘armchair travel’. Along the Ganges is a beguiling, relatively straightforward record of a journey. Ilija Trojanow was born in Bulgaria but writes in German, from which his book is translated. He went by boat, bus and foot from the source of the river to its mouth. Resourceful and intrepid as a traveller, he is also knowledgeable and observant, and he writes very well. He appears always to be open to whatever happens, and the spareness of his value judgments means that the diversity and confusions along his way are vivid. His remarks on the river’s pollution are the more disturbing for being graceful, and made in passing. He is funny, and shocking, and always interesting.

From Cape Wrath to Finisterre is by contrast an account of a state of mind. Bjorn Larsson (who is Swedish) says that the subject ‘is one attempt … to live in a way that makes life’s problems vanish … If it can inspire some to take liberties with life, I shall be happy.’ His book refers back to several long sailing trips in Celtic waters, and is therefore confused, but in a way that benefits his purpose, for the driving force is not the narratives of his voyages but the explanation of why he loves his boat and the freedom that it enables him to enjoy. Crossing the North Sea in a gale in a small yacht may sound like torture to most of us, but it is fascinating to read Larsson’s thoughts circling around his adventures. By not presenting his trips in sequence, they become just a mise-en-scène for the real focus, which is the experience of intensity. There are moments when he lapses into a ramble — when he tells us about his writing, for example (though I was pleased to be reminded that he is the author of the wonderful novel Long John Silver, which the jacket unaccountably neglects to mention) — but he has written an unusual book which must stimulate any reader to consider how they experience the world.

I mean it as a compliment to Larsson and Trojanow that after reading their books I have no desire to go down the Ganges or to spend several months on a boat. But I am most grateful to them for having done so, and enabling me to read about their impressions from the relative comfort of — alas — not an armchair but a packed Tube train.


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