The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Journeys: An Anthology (Picador, Rs 295) edited by Robyn Davidson is an utterly ravishing collection of travel writing. It starts with Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of the Pali Life of the Buddha: “House life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open”. It ends with the 1997 NASA report from the space shuttle, Atlantis. In between, the book ranges across the continents and brings together an astonishing range of writers and genres. Davidson’s unpretentious but immensely intelligent introduction defines travel writing as “a non-fiction in which the author goes from point a to point b and tells us something about it”. We therefore read Van Gogh on Saintes Maries, Katherine Mansfield on travelling through Italy, Auden on Iceland, Luis Buñuel on his favourite European cafes and bars, and a wealth of idiosyncratic pieces from, among others, Stendhal, Bruce Chatwin, Richard Haklyut, T.E. Lawrence, Gore Vidal, Naipaul and Pasolini, and a superb section from Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropique on the Chittagong Hills. This book will give a great deal of pleasure, but reading it could also be a deeply unsettling experience. Innisfree and Elsewhere, imagined or real, will always embody what Proust beautifully describes as “the greatest sense of expectation waiting on happiness that has ever filled the human heart”.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Rupa, Rs 50) is a rather poor quality reprint of Edward Fitzgerald’s famous Victorian translation of this 12th-century Persian poet. It brings together a number of editions and provides the textual variants, together with Fitzgerald’s “dialogue on youth”, Euphranor and his translation of the Sufi allegory by Jami, Salaman and Absal. A fascinating glimpse into the eclectic world of a Victorian dilettante.

Burma: The Curse of Independence (Penguin, Rs 295) by Shelby Tucker is a basic and valuable study which attempts to fill up “the Burmese void”: “Burma for most Europeans and Americans is either a void or a sequence of random pictures contrasting Good and Evil”. It sketches out the context to the Burmese civil war, which began 12 weeks after Britain granted Burma independence in 1948 and has continued ever since. Tucker provides “a coherent story of inherent instability having to do with Burma’s geography, ethnic heterogeneity and political history, and poppy and personal corruption”. Chapters on the “narcocrats” and the “kleptocrats”, a chronological guide to the civil war and an annotated bibliography make this an important sequel to Tucker’s Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma.

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