May 31, 1998

Travel Roundup

“IN truth,” Stephen Minta protests, “I’ve never wanted to follow in anyone’s footsteps.” As a boy, when he sang the carol about Good King Wenceslas, Minta focused on the role of the King’s page, summoned outdoors at night to accompany his liege “through the rude wind’s wild lament”—”In his master’s steps he trod, / Where the snow lay dinted.” As Minta reconstructs the story, the two gave Christmas dinner to a serf they saw gathering firewood in the storm and “then, I suppose, returned home, the King to be a saint and the page to carry on being a page.” But although this was a “memorable journey,” Minta recalls that “it was hard to believe, at the age of 12, that life held nothing better than the promise of a great man’s coattails.”

And yet that’s precisely where five authors of this season’s travel books—Minta included—have placed themselves. This genre within a genre has built-in advantages, giving both the reader and the lonely travel writer an interesting companion and immediately providing historical depth. But there are limitations as well: if the writer has no true passion for the traveler being pursued, the strategy may serve simply as an excuse to take a lame trip and write a mediocre book.

That’s not a concern for most of these writers. Perhaps the strongest—and certainly the strangest—of their books is William Dalrymple’s FROM THE HOLY MOUNTAIN: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (Holt, $30). Dalrymple, the Scottish author of two previous award-winning travelogues, “In Xanadu” and “City of Djinns,” followed the path of the monk John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist, who trekked through the Byzantine Empire in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, when exotic forms of Christian practice were nurtured in fortified monasteries and remote hermitages. Among the monks’ contemporaries were the stylites, ascetics who declaimed the wisdom of God from high atop the pillars where they lived. Another contemporary, coincidentally, was the prophet Mohammed.

Soon after the monks’ journey, Christianity would begin a thousand-year decline in the region, swamped by the great expansion of Islam that continues to this day. When visiting the Phanar, the oldest institution in Istanbul and “the nearest thing the Greek Orthodox have to a Vatican,” Dalrymple is shown a translation of a recent death threat to the Patriarch that was accompanied by a hastily defused bomb. A bit later, he is stunned as the priests conclude an afternoon service minutes after it begins because “not one person occupied the empty pews.” In site after site, he sees monks persecuted and afraid for their lives, as he is himself in several encounters with the soldiers and police of various Islamic states. Thus, Dalrymple reflects, Moschos’s journal, “The Spiritual Meadow,” “could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written.” He also predicts that his retracing of the monks’ journey will allow him “to do what no future generation of travelers would be able to do”—”witness what was in effect the last ebbing twilight of Byzantium.”

Dalrymple, a decidedly learned sort who allows that “at Cambridge I spent my final year specializing in the study of Hiberno-Saxon art,” has a zeal for ecclesiastical arcana that occasionally blinds him to the limits of what might interest the general reader. (“Scholars believe that work produced in the Tur Abdin may well once have provided the inspiration for the very first figurative Christian art in Britain,” he enthuses.) But this passion is leavened by his dark sense of humor and talent as a journalist. On the Syrian border with Turkey, crushed to hear that the presence of Hafez al-Assad’s secret police makes it too dangerous for him to interview a group of Nestorian Christian refugees, he is reassured by a Syrian who once lived in England that there is a large Nestorian community back home in Ealing.

“Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century,” Dalrymple concludes. “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.” Dalrymple is the professor whose obscure lectures you attend just so you can hear him talk.

In a more conventional mode but also satisfying is THE SPICE ISLANDS VOYAGE: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin’s Discovery of Evolution (Carroll & Graf, $25), by Tim Severin. An “in the footsteps of” veteran who has also retraced the travels of Genghis Khan, Ulysses, Jason (of Golden Fleece fame), Sinbad and Marco Polo, Severin here pursues Alfred Russel Wallace, the self-effacing collector and cataloguer of foreign fauna who articulated a theory of species origination before Darwin did. Using Wallace’s classic, “The Malay Archipelago,” as his guide, Severin sets sail in the eastern portion of present-day Indonesia with a team of explorers in a specially made boat, intending to go where Wallace went and see what he saw.

Predictably, the exotic species that gave rise to Wallace’s revolutionary ideas are disappearing about as fast as Dalrymple’s Middle Eastern Christians. Severin sounds the alarm, as a good witness should. But what’s more memorable about the book is his deep and obvious sympathy for Wallace, an amiable and bumbling autodidact who spent years pottering around the tropics suffering every conceivable setback while, Severin suggests, the well-connected Darwin dawdled in luxury and conspired to steal Wallace’s thunder. Without advertising it, “The Spice Islands Voyage” is in large part intellectual history. Least interesting is Severin’s own journey, and he seems to recognize it, taking every opportunity to place us alongside Wallace as he discovers a 12-foot python in the thatched roof over his bed, watches the destruction of a ship containing all his specimens from years in the Amazon and crawls through the jungle because of the sores on his feet.

It’s a vanished Eden in the Midwest that Daniel Spurr dreams of in RIVER OF FORGOTTEN DAYS: A Journey Down the Mississippi in Search of La Salle (Holt, $23). His “Pre-America” is a “land before the roads and railways, way back, when the whites were first coming up the rivers looking for fur, copper and the Northwest Passage.” Among these whites, Spurr fixed on Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the explorer of the Great Lakes region, where Spurr grew up, and the first European to float the Mississippi to its mouth. In this book, Spurr caps a 20-year interest in the explorer by retracing La Salle’s route from near Chicago to New Orleans in a rundown, underpowered motorboat called Pearl, accompanied by his 7-year-old son from his current marriage and 24-year-old daughter from a previous one.

Though one senses that the loner La Salle would have been a difficult traveling companion, Spurr makes a fine one, writing candidly about himself and adroitly about what little is known of the years when La Salle made his Mississippi forays—the sinking of a fur-trading ship whose profits were to finance his long trips, his eventual murder at the hands of his men on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The problem is that Spurr is preoccupied with ghosts besides La Salle’s. Traveling with his son makes him think of his own deceased father and their many distances. It gives him time to grieve for another son, killed by a train at the age of 12. Spurr apparently wasn’t living with the son, his now-grown daughter and his first wife at the time, and feels guilty about his absence. I like to know whom I’m traveling with and generally approve of the confessional strain in American travel writing, but intimate self-revelation is volatile. With La Salle the main event here, Spurr’s personal story seems to belong in a different book.

The opposite side of the self-revelation coin is found in Stephen Minta’s ON A VOICELESS SHORE: Byron in Greece (Holt, $25). In what is essentially a biography, Minta explores the period that led Lord Byron to write, “If I am a poet, the air of Greece has made me one.” First with his friend John Cam Hobhouse and later by himself, Byron explored Greece and Albania in high Romantic style at the age of 21, accompanied by his personal valet and enough belongings (including seven trunks and even wooden beds) to require 16 horses. Years later, he returned to play a role in the Greek war of independence and—pointlessly, it would appear—died.

Minta, a lecturer in comparative literature at the University of York whose previous book, “Aguirre,” retraced the mad Spaniard’s early travels in 16th-century South America, speaks Greek and uses his long acquaintance with the region to lend texture to Byron’s wanderings. Consider, for example, the book’s graceful opening paragraph: “There is no better time of day, no softer season, no finer approach. Yet it was only by chance that Lord Byron’s first view of Greece came on a morning in late September, as he sailed in from the west across the Ionian Sea.” One longs for a bit more of Minta, clearly a fascinating and intrepid traveler whose first-person interjections are quirky and unpredictable. But his story of Byron finally carries its own weight. Moving deftly between the witty impressions of the poet and Hobhouse as revealed in letters and diary entries, an account of a long visit with the conquering despot Ali Pasha and a consideration of the poet’s status as an early sex tourist (by his own count, he had intercourse with more than 200 Greek boys), “On a Voiceless Shore” is moving and memorable.

It hardly seems fair to compare TRACES OF THOREAU: A Cape Cod Journey (Northeastern University Press, cloth, $42.50; paper, $14.95; available next month) with these other books. Stephen Mulloney, a former television reporter and legislative aide, spent one long night reading Henry David Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” an account of his walking tours of the Cape in the 1840’s and 50’s, and then two long summer weekends retracing one 30-mile hike along the beach. Nothing happened to him that might not happen to you if you tried the same thing. I recommend the hike.