Linda Herrick

Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Book Review: The New Granta Book of Travel

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The New Granta Book of Travel ed by Liz Jobey
Granta $36.99

Book cover of The New Granta Book of Travel. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The New Granta Book of Travel. Photo / Supplied

Although the incident occurred nearly 50 years ago, "it won't leave my mind," Paul Theroux writes in Trespass, one of the most chilling stories in this disparate collection from writers well-known and new.

It was entirely his own, arrogant fault. Theroux, then a young man teaching in Malawi, travelled to Zambia on Christmas Eve where he sat drinking in a dirty bar outside Lusaka. He was befriended by a creepy couple who called themselves brother and sister; he describes the encounter as "the meeting of people who are such utter strangers to each other that one side sees a ghost and the other suspects an opportunity".

The trio of new friends got drunk, then they took him home to their hut a long way away in the bush (Theroux had to pay for the taxi, thereby establishing he had cash). He and the woman had sex and, in the morning, they would not let him go, instead taking him back to the bar at 8am where they drank all day and repeated the same routine, but this time with ever-increasing menace, and constant demands for money. He was, effectively, kidnapped: "I belonged to them, like a valuable animal they had poached."

On day four, back in the bar yet again and covered in filth, the terrified Theroux left his jacket and what little cash he had left and did a runner.

Many dangerous things later happened to him in Africa, "but this was my first true experience of captivity and difference, memorable for being horribly satirical."

The book opens with Arrival, an affecting short piece by Albino Ochero-Okello, who fled Uganda in 1988 and sought refuge in Britain. His account of what it was like to arrive at Heathrow and declare himself a refugee, to answer questions about why he had left and about his family back at home, and to be locked in a van then driven to a detention centre, is raw and sad. He was amazed when he was given coupons and told to travel to a bed and breakfast in north London by train.

Unlike back at home, "there were no domestic livestock nor agricultural livestock being ferried inside it alongside the passengers."

Redmond O'Hanlon, who has a genius for comedy in travel writing, takes us on a truly bizarre trip into the heart of witchcraft in The Congo Dinosaur, in the company of Dr Marcellin Agnagna, Cuban-educated head of the Conservation of Fauna and Flora and a full-blown nut-job.

O'Hanlon's language is hilarious. Even as he faces the dangers of superstition and irrationality, O'Hanlon throws in understated lines like, "I looked up from a spasm of diarrhoea". He decides he hates Marcellin. The cook teaches him the Lingala words for "I want some food", which turns out to be an obscene phrase. And he has a close encounter with a pack of screaming chimps, "their hair erect with rage". "This is a very effective display, I thought, patronisingly. Then, I thought (less patronisingly), these apes are big."

I'm not sure about the "new" claim in the book's title: some of the stories were published in the 90s (Bruce Chatwin, Andrew O'Hagan, O'Hanlon, Jonathan Raban, Colin Thubron, W.G. Sebald). A few deal with subjects so obscure as to border on boring (Kathleen Jamie's Airds Moss went way over my head). But generally the quality of the writers plunging into some really challenging situations make this an impressive assembly of insights into places you'd never dare visit.

However, all backpackers heading for Thailand should read and learn from Decca Aitkenhead's Lovely Girls, Very Cheap.

- NZ Herald

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