Review of Travel Books Part II

M F K Fisher, too, is a writer of real charm. Not travelling but staying still, she brings the taste of foreign places to the tongue, often literally, since food is her province and Southern France her preferred abode. Two Towns in Provence (Chatto pounds 4.95 pp208) pairs up her books on Aix and Marseille. Oblique, unobvious, ruminative and strangely touching, they are a connoisseur’s distinctive contribution to the Anglo-Saxon literature of France.

So, in its day, was A Little Tour in France (Penguin pounds 3.95 pp246), the short book in which Henry James follows Balzac to Tours and points south. Art and architecture, rather than the pleasures of the table, are James’s main interest, though he does not hesitate to pronounce on the vulgarity of the claret he drank in Bordeaux. Though written 100 years ago, this book could still be used as a guide to France. The heart of western civilization, it shows, has changed less than the periphery.

The Kremlin is still recognizable from the description in Robert Byron’s First Russia, then Tibet (Penguin pounds 3.95 pp 253), but the Tibet he visited in the 1930s, a land before science, before the wheel, a theocracy with a single telephone, has surely vanished forever. For Byron, intercontinental air travel was a novelty meriting lengthy description – this part of the book reads quaintly now – and his genre-conscious irony, once spiffingly modern, now seems to reveal a certain lack of depth.

Writers with special knowledge, those for whom writing is not a trade, may well produce more valuable, more long-lasting works of literature. Henry de Monfried was a French smuggler, operating in the 1920s, and his Hashish (Penguin pounds 3.95 pp 217), though full of fibs in other respects, could doubtless still be used as a Red Sea coastal pilot. There are probably fewer openings in the drug smuggling business there these days for westerners – De Monfried’s successors are on the Caracas-Miami run now.

Whether any of them will produce as exciting a book as ‘Hashish’ is doubtful.

De Monfried’s yarns are themselves eclipsed by the Duke of Pirajno’s A Cure For Serpents (Eland pounds 4.95 pp263), the memoirs of an Italian doctor and government administrator in North Africa and Eritrea between the wars. Of all these new and antique works of travel and foreign sojourn, this is the most pleasant surprise. Passionately interested in his work, endlessly curious about the lives of his patients, the ducal doctor had access equally to Tuareg tents and portside brothels (where his speculum was known as the phallus of the government) and no compunction in describing what he saw in either.

This delightful book, from an era when delight was easier to come by, is reprinted in an elegant edition by Eland Books, as is Norman Lewis’s The Changing Sky (pounds 4.95 pp254), absorbing essays on various locales, mainly tropical, by the author of The Honored Society and Naples ’44 (both also available from Eland). Books from this publisher, it will bear saying once again, are properly bound, albeit paperbacks, and printed on decent paper. They will not fall apart on you in the train or on the beach.

Not so The Tropical Traveler (Pan pounds 2.95 pp267) whose author, John Hatt, is, as it happens, the proprietor of Eland Books. Too bad: The Tropical Traveler, an amusing and truly handy handbook now in its second, significantly improved edition, will fall to pieces well before the appearance of the third. Why can’t Pan take a leaf out of their own author’s book?

Maybe it takes fewer trees to make a tacky book than a decent, solid one. If so, it is better that books should come apart than that the biosphere should. Do we need to be told again how much we need forests? Why we need tropical ones above all? We do: and Catherine Caufield’s In The Rainforest (Heinemann hardback pounds 10.95 pp304) does it very nicely. We can manage without orangutans, without Amerindians if we have to, but not without the genetic reservoir that forms a thin, broken band round the tropics, where half the world’s species live.

Catherine Caufield’s special knowledge is ecology, most generous of the sciences of life, and this book is an example of the very high quality of contemporary scientific journalism. Modestly written, it documents the assault on the greatest miracle of nature by a human ice age, one that threatens life itself. For all the enduring delights of travel we need only read this to remember how sad a place the world has become.

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