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Magnificent obsessions


IT helps for writers to be obsessive, for, if they marry their obsessions to talent and discipline they are likely to produce superior work. Where travel writing is concerned, magnificent obsessions are quite crucial if the book isn't to be lacklustre and unfocused. Jason Elliot has all the qualities I've enumerated in abundant measure and these invest his travelogue, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan (Picador) with brilliance. The book is not new, having been first published two years ago, but I picked it off my shelf just a couple of weeks ago and I'm glad I did. It doesn't of course cover the recent events in the troubled country he writes about, but that is of little account, for, the book successfully bypasses the superficial troubles that every country is prone to and cuts through to the core of a place that has long held the world's imagination.

Afghanistan first captured Elliot's fancy when he was only 12. A passing conversation with his father about the country firmly fixed it in his mind, and from that point onwards it was only a matter of time before he took the plunge and decided to see the place for himself. When he turned 19, he decided he'd waited long enough, and while his peer group experimented with drugs and girls, he took a train to Peshawar. Afghanistan was, naturally enough, at war, but he went in nonetheless. That first trip only deepened his obsession with the land, and he went back for more. Each time he visited he went deeper and deeper into the troubled land, often without money, guides or a knowledge of the language or customs. Unsurprisingly, then, he was often in danger from bullets, bombs, thugs or even just the weather. Despite all this he continued to press on, the danger giving his perceptions an edge a more straightforward journey would have failed to provide.

Today, thanks to George W. Bush, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not to mention the Soviet occupation that preceded these, the world knows, or thinks it knows, all it wants to know about Bamiyan and Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Panjshir. But An Unexpected Light gives us a country that despite everything CNN and Star News has thrown at us, retains a strange and enticing quality. For example, we are shown parties in Kabul that the few remaining expats flock to, despite the ever-present dangers of incoming shells and trigger happy mujahedin patrolling the curfew-shadowed streets, we tramp along with the traveller through icy wind-whipped passes where in addition to hypothermia and frost-bite, there is also the likelihood of being blown up by a mine. We are present at the front-lines where fear often breaks through the bravado of teenaged fighters, and in an especially lovely scene we watch the author sharing a cup of tea with a couple of homeless Afghans in a street where every building is a shell-pocked ruin.

Elliot writes extraordinarily well, both of his encounters with the people of Afghanistan as well as of the harsh beauty of the countryside. I've always been seduced by descriptive writing of the highest order, so it was no surprise that the book captivated me. Here, for example is a passage from early in the book that shows the author's great gifts of description: "From the beginning we became the captives of an unexpected light. Even as we stepped into its unaccustomed brightness that first morning, it seemed probable we had entered a world in some way enchanted, for which we lacked the proper measure ... "The light was as delicate as crystal; I had forgotten its tricks. It stripped far-off shapes and colours of the usual vagaries of distance and played havoc with space, luring the mountains from beyond the city to within arm's reach and catapulting forward the expressions on faces 200 yards away. Under its spell the landscape seemed to dance on the very edge of materiality. The light was joined in a gentle conspiracy with the air itself, which whispered in the leaves above our heads, tinged with a faint scent of balsam. Already our experience was drawing on the luminosity of our surroundings, and the boundary between them growing less substantial; already the ordinary rule of things seemed less likely to apply... " An Unexpected Light is Jason Elliot's first book and it was greeted with a storm of praise when it first appeared. Some of the finest travel writers of our time, among them Eric Newby, Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple praised it and it also won the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award. Given his close connection with this part of the world, it seems just that Dalrymple should be allowed the last word on this extraordinary book. His comment, quoted on the front cover of the paperback, goes, "An astonishing debut: one of the most remarkable travel books this decade."

* * *

The second book I've noticed this week is also the fulfilment of a magnificent obsession but, unfortunately, it isn't as good a book as the one that precedes it in this column. Nonetheless, Richard Bernstein's Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage) is quite a good read. Its subject Hsuan Tsang should be familiar to most of us because he was the Seventh Century Chinese who set out from Xian for India to study the Buddhist scriptures in the land of their origin. Hsuan Tsang (or Hiuen Tsiang) is of course best known to lay audiences and historians as the author of Buddhist Records of the Western World an exhaustive, and scrupulous, account of his travels through the Silk Road and what is now modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan to India; a journey he undertook on foot through often dangerous and inhospitable terrain.

Bernstein, a correspondent for the New York Times, retraces the monk's footsteps, his stated intent, but ever so often he takes a shortcut which rather takes away from the whole exercise. More disappointingly, his accounts of India are superficial and betray the bias of the casual traveller, to the overall detriment of the book. I read Ultimate Journey with pleasure, however, for wherever the author failed I tried to use my imagination to experience what his distant precursor must have felt or seen. It was quite an entertaining experience and it might be something you'd like to try yourself. If not, you should get hold of a copy of Hsuan Tsang's original narrative that's available in an English translation (first published in 1884 and available from Munshiram Manoharlal) by Samuel Beal.

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