Monday, December 20, 2010

Great Journeys: Eric Newby in the Hindu Kush

Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958) is a great journey because it announced Newby's arrival as one of the most constant and approachable travel writers of the twentieth century. The story tells of his decision to leave his post-War career in the rag trade and team up with a British Foreign Office friend to climb Mir Samir, a peak in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush, then as now one of the most alluring and difficult places in the world to visit.

At first, there seems something ho-hum about Newby's prose style, and the dialogue in particular strains to be jolly in that 1950s way where quick sarcasm is used a veil of pain and tiredness. A survival device left over from the War, perhaps. But now and then the reality of Newby's situation pierces through, especially when the two travellers learn about the troubles faced by the locals. The first horrifying event is a road accident, the second a robbery, the third an accidental shooting. In each case, Newby is merely a witness - although in the first incident is blamed for the fatality - but the intrusion of these deaths in the narrative lifts the bumbling tone from seeming too jolly English to rather tragic: the young travellers really are out of their depth. That the sarcasm fails to hide that fact makes the story better.

For the rest of his writing career, Newby managed a delicate balance of silliness, sarcasm and glimpses of awkwardness and uncertainty, and as a result his writing is always approachable. He has a distinctive, generational humour which he couples with a willingness to be exposed on the page, a fact that relates his writing to travellers like Bill Bryson who are prepared to seem as faulty as the countries and cultures featured in their books.

My personal favourite is On the Shores of the Mediterranean (1984), when Newby and his wife Wanda trace the whole of the Med - there's a particularly wonderful scene of them driving through the rain to Cetinje in Montenegro, a route that I re-traced with my wife Olanda in 2005. Newby had gone looking for the famous Hotel Grand to find only foundations and ruins, a disappointing result that came at the end of a terrifying climb along what really is one of the most confronting roads in Europe. Twenty years later, Olanda and I found a Hotel Grand of Soviet proportions: hundreds of rooms, mostly empty, a resident basketball team, and more waiting staff in the restaurant than customers. I doubted that Newby would have been impressed with the reconstruction, but I toasted him all the same.

Slowly Down the Ganges (1966) is another highlight for me, and also A Small Place in Italy (1994), which I suppose was taking part in that wave of expat memoirs that appeared in the 80s and 90s, but which in this case is much better for Newby's long connection with Italy - it was there that he met his wife Wanda, when as an escaped prisoner of war he tried to find a way out of enemy territory by walking the Apennines.

Walking to escape is part of the thematic geography of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, too, and remains at the core of most of Newby's writing: you can laugh, but you also need to get away, and getting away means being unsettled, exposed, and ultimately more open. You might even find a wife.