BOOK REVIEW / The last train to nowhere: 'The Orient-Express' - Gregor von Rezzori: Chatto, 13.99 pounds

'O TRAIN de luxe] . . . O Harmonika-Zug]' When Gregor von Rezzori was a boy, the Orient- Express sang its way across Europe from Paris to the Levant. For Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Valery Labaud's more etiolated dandy A O Barnabooth, this was the train for adventure, on which it was unquestionably more important to travel than to arrive. In these days of upmarket travel, however, the dream stretches no further than Venice.

It is to the Lagoon City (rather than to his childhood haunts on the Danube Delta) that Aram, the narrator of this novel, returns, on the run from an emigre life as a 'cast-iron financier' in New York. Lost between the continent of memory and the continent of collective fantasy, Aram floats in a shuttered hotel suite above the Grand Canal, reviewing his life in a series of snapsnots, each filed under a tired proverb: Time Is Relative, He Who Casts The First Stone, and so on. Initially, Aram's musings promise another Orient-Express thriller: he speaks like a man with the world on his trail (The Past Is Closing On His Heels, And So Is The Present). And, like someone determined to provoke questions only in order to enjoy snubbing the curious, he lets drop various strands of a respectable life.

Self-obsessively, he itemises his wife Linda, their ordered, childless, now sexless marriage; his over-eager mistress Denise, always too keen to show Aram off in public; his flight from the 'armada of things', domestic and corporate, which fail to stimulate. And now the man who remarks that an erotic education amounts to character development finds that even the tanned bodies by the pool fail to excite. In a world where everything from restaurants to Botticelli is accorded its ration of stars in the travel guide, Aram can't avoid joining the 'hairy limbs, obscene breasts, towering knapsacks' of the tourist tide, which his fastidious spirit abominates.

When, in the second half of the book, 'the story begins' and Aram takes an uneasy stake in the Orient-Express dream and travels west towards Paris, nostalgia bites still deeper. A Finnish tour guide, who he mistakenly imagines will fall in with his almost pathological, undeniable carnal urges ('the spirit is willing, but the flesh is too strong'), reminds him of his sexual initiation on the train while on his way across Europe to school in England 50 years before. A girl on the ferry (or, more particularly, the angle of her scarf in the wind) evokes Kitty, his first sweetheart at home in Braila. Drunk as much on self-disgust as vodka, Aram casts out the dross and finds there is nothing left.

Aram resembles a cosmopolitan version of von Rezzori's own father, as portrayed in his recent memoir, The Snows of Yesteryear. Read from that perspective, the novel warns against travel: Von Rezzori senior was happy crashing around the forests of Transcarpathia with a shotgun; Aram moved away from the periphery of Europe and found nothing to settle on. But The Orient-Express is a clumsier work. Aram is a bore, albeit a refined bore, and, in the absence of any plot beyond the journey itself, his voice becomes that of a lonely old man out of his historical period. When he throws his watch into the ferry's wake, the grand final gesture - a farewell to the tyranny of time - seems as overblown as his rhetoric.

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