Thursday, 23 April 2015

Traversa, a postscript

On the cover of Fran Sandham's "ňáTraversa" there is the somewhat non-commital endorsement from The Guardian reading "I found myself increasingly gripped". Since publishing this and fishing around for what others thought of the book I found the Guardian review it came from - interesting reading, and a pointed comment on how marketing latches onto a snippet and does what it can... I'm currently reading Mazower's book on Salonica, and its cover features a quote from a somewhat non-commital Jan Morris review, I like Jan Morris, I'm enjoying Mazower, I'm sure my purchasing decision was uninfluenced, but nonetheless it's fascinating to see how 'documents' about documents are created.

People always say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Should we respin this to say don't judge a review by the pullquote used on a cover? Or is that descending too far into a meta-narrative?

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Across Africa by Foot

"Traversa", Fran Sandham 

Often when I've left a job the parting gifts provided by colleagues serve to indicate that while you may well have spent a long time in proximity with these people, they haven't really worked out who you are. It was thus with some real pleasure, after almost a year in the library of a financial institution I was seen off with a copy of Fran Sandham's "Traversa", the sort of gift that carried with it a sense that real thought had gone into it, and which was very much appreciated.

The central premise of a lone walk from West to East coasts of Africa in the footprints of Stanley and Livingstone carries with it a certain quantity of baggage. One anticipates reading of an earnest, driven and somehow unattainable person undertaking a feat of endurance and adventure that few of us could aspire to. 

There's a time and a place for intimidating tales like that, I've read and loved Paddy Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, and Adrian Seligman and felt a little bit in awe of what they've achieved. Similarly there's a time and place for "Traversa".

Walking across Africa, as "Traversa" makes clear, is not something to be undertaken lightly, okay it's not the journey into the unknown experienced by Livingstone, but mentions of places such as Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip and a brief mention in the first chapter when Sandham plans his route recall the long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s and early 21st century, sometime referred to as Africa's Great War. Sandham's periodic concerns about landmines remind the reader that not so long ago this undertaking would be undertaken only by lunatics.

"Traversa" is imbued with a rich sense of humour; featuring sclerotic Afrikaners, recalcitrant donkeys, and amorous backpackers "Traversa" reassures the less intrepid that epic adventure is not beyond us. Indeed there is some genuinely useful advice for those of us who are not quite as ruggedly capable as a Ranulph Fiennes, including the priceless gem that when in a treehouse take care to not urinate on the head of a fierce dog. 

Any journey like this will reveal that Africa is not affluent, and that concepts of poverty and hardship that we apply in the developed world have a completely different meaning in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sandham doesn't make this the focus of his work, but makes clear that there is little romance to poverty, and the reality of existence can be nasty, brutish, and short. There is also the challenge that a lot of tourism doesn't necessarily help, and the reality that motivations for some, in particular an older American with "a keen eye for young girls" encountered by Lake Malawi, may not be the most wholesome.

Works like these are inherently autobiographical, as much about the author as the journey; in this light there is often a temptation to see them as voyages of personal discovery, in the process witnessing the author undergoing some form of catharsis of self realisation or mid-life crisis. Sandham, for that all his motivations for his traversa stem from a dissatisfaction with a life defined by commuting from Wimbledon to Waterloo, escapes this. Fleeting moments of wistful introspection - perhaps best encapsulated by an encounter with a beautiful girl in Livingstone which ends with him walking her to a bus stop and knowing he will never see her again - serve to illustrate, but not define the work. Reading "Traversa" is not an insight into a troubled soul, it is much more akin to a genial friend's recollections.

It's not a long book, and like many such works, the real pleasure is in the early game, when there's more discovery to be had, but it's a highly enjoyable read that bears taking some time over. You have fun reading it, and by the end of the process you feel edified. I'm not sure you can really ask for much more from a book?

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

"The Assassin", Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

There's a certain serendipity to this. A couple of weeks ago, sitting at Gatwick waiting to board a flight east to Tbilisi, I was struck by the sort of mild panic that the onset of the Kindle has hugely eased. Fretting that none of the packed books or downloaded JSTOR articles would quite be enough to keep me entertained for the week, a quick ferret yielded a pair of Clive Cussler books, guilty pleasures perhaps, but reassuring knowing that whatever else, I was unlikely to be stuck abroad with nothing entertaining to read.

As luck would have it, both Cusslers went unread on the road, Kate Mosse's "Citadel" providing all the leisure reading needed, and it was only once returned, driven by the exigencies of crowded trains, that attention moved to Cussler and Scott's "The Assassin". As I've blogged before, I've got history with both, the two, amongst others, providing much of the escapism my teenage self sought. I've grown up, and they still know their market. The Isaac Bell series, of which this is the 8th, are straightforwardly written and don't contain too much in the way of surprises. Part of me wants them to be richer and deeper novels, but the realist in me is pleased that this combination of easy access, good storytelling, and engaging surroundings exists, and serves in a small part to locate the early 20th century in the minds of readers and may encourage them to think more widely about the world of this period.

Back to serendipity though. "The Assassin" deals with Standard Oil and the personality of Nelson Rockefeller, and the middle section of the book takes place in the Caucasus, then and now a booming oil rich region. Baku in the throes of the 1905 revolution provides a dramatic backdrop to one of the significant set pieces, and leads Bell, Rockefeller, and sundry other protagonists struggling to escape west. A wry smile was thus evoked when around page 270 they reach Tbilisi. Often the appearance of exotic or obscure parts of the world set in the past offer scope for an author to indulge in creative licence, so there was a huge level of pleasure on my part to be able to recognise the view of old and new Tbilisi from Mtatsminda park and the funicular railway providing a route down to the city.

The view of Tbilisi seen by Bell from Mtatsminda, 110 years on.
I shouldn't have been surprised. One of the hallmarks of Justin Scott's work has always been a keen attention to historical detail, but it's something oft overlooked. It doesn't cost the author much to get it right, and it's so pleasing to see it as well executed as it is here.

An effective sense of place aside, "The Assassin" romps along in an effective way. It's not high literature, and when read carefully there's not much that will really surprise, but most importantly it entertains and mainly edifies. There's a time and a place for the erudite and thought provoking, but so is there time for this. Maybe it didn't need to save my reading life when in parts foreign, but it made the commute through South London a good deal more pleasurable.

As I've said before, more of the same please.

Monday, 6 April 2015

"Citadel", Kate Mosse

Some books require the right time and place to be read. Having wholly enjoyed the first two of Kate Mosse's Cathar trilogy there was a lot of enthusiasm when "Citadel" came out in the run up to Christmas 2012; I honestly believed it would be a book that occupied hours through the Christmas break when respite from the barrage of family that the season invariably involves was needed.

This didn't happen.

Instead "Citadel" has been sitting in a magazine box beside an armchair in the sitting room pretty much since then. A couple of abortive attempts to start it went nowhere, and when heading off on travels eastwards last week, picking up "Citadel" was accompanied by a tacit bargain that if it returned from Georgia unread then it would go to a new home and I'd file a level of wonder at why it had failed to grasp me in the way the previous novels had.

Maybe it's because I've been thinking about the Languedoc recently, idly thinking about Cathar castles (and yes, I know, most of these post-date the Cathar period) and pondering whether an Albigensian crusade of my own was a feasible road trip, but this time "Citadel" gripped. I tried to think at what point I bulldozed my way through whatever the previous sticking point in the novel had been, but to be honest I was considerably past it by the time it became a serious consideration, and by that time I had identified sufficiently with the characters and been engaged by the plot to not really worry about why previously the book hadn't worked.

Taking a similar twin narrative approach to the previous two volumes, the focus of the book is Carcassonne and the Languedoc between 1942 and 1944, covering the period of German occupation and French collaboration and resistance. It's not a particularly pretty piece of history, and Mosse doesn't shy away from making clear the level of atrocity perpetrated and the way in which communities tore themselves apart. While there are still the notes of magic realism that ran through "Labyrinth" and "Seplulchre", this time it feels somehow darker. Here the good guys don't always win, and in sending this message it makes "Citadel" a useful text when thinking about post-1940 France.

It's probably reliant on you being in the right frame of mind, and wanting to put yourself in the Languedoc in a dark time more readily recognisable than that of the early 13th century, but "Citadel" does reward and serves to make you think in a way that marks it out as rewarding literature.

Maybe I will find some time to head to the deep south of France this year.