Tuesday, July 15, 2014

JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS by Graham Greene (✰✰)

Off the top of my head I can only think of one other book that garnered a measly two stars from me, so you know I sincerely disliked this book.  Despite being a person who nearly always finishes a book once I start it, I was sorely tempted to drop this one many, many times.  The only reason I persevered with it was because the next book on my Africa list is Tim Butcher’s Chasing the Devil, which retraces Graham Greene’s journey through Liberia.  Butcher’s book has come highly recommended to me, so I didn’t want to drop both books, but the friend who recommended Chasing the Devil remarked that she wished she had read Greene’s book first.
The most irritating thing about Journey Without Maps was how negative Greene was about everything that he experienced.  I realize that travel through Africa is taxing both physically and mentally, but I felt that Greene exhibited a rather obnoxious inability to accept that when you choose to travel to certain corners of the globe life is not going to be as you knew it to be back home.  His journey was made during the waning days of British colonialism, and I often got the feeling that his views were perhaps colored by the attitudes of the time in which he lived.

Another major issue that I had with the book was the constant shifting from one topic to another.  Numerous times I would reread the preceding paragraphs, thinking that my mind must have wandered and caused me to miss a transition, only to discover that it was Greene’s mind doing the wandering, not mine.

To the author’s credit, there were stretches where the lovely, descriptive prose of Greene the novelist shone through.  Those were the places that saved me as I took months to slog through this relatively short travel narrative.  A couple of my favorite quotes:

“Their laughter and their happiness seemed the most courageous things in nature.  Love, it has been said, was invented in Europe by the troubadours, but it existed here without the trappings of civilization.”

“Once a beautiful little green snake moved across the path, upright, without hurry, bearing her bust proudly forward into the grasses like a hostess painted by Sargent, poisonous with gentility, a Fabergé jewel.”

Quite a bit of African culture is conveyed, but between the wandering style and the disdainful tone, it is a serious challenge to enjoy those tidbits of trivia and knowledge that would normally make such a travel log enjoyable.

There are very few people for whom I would recommend this book.  If you have an amazingly unsquelchable interest in colonialist attitudes or an unshakeable love of the minutia of African daily life and politics, then it might be worth a go.

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