BOOK REVIEW / Working holidays in hell: Nicholas Lezard follows some new literary adventurers

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'I THINK there was a time when all of us saw the world in terms of exotic travel and thrilling adventure,' writes Tim Cahill in his introduction to Pecked to Death by Ducks (4th Estate pounds 7.99). 'Somewhere along the line - usually on the first day of the first real job - we find that these dreams have gone dormant.' Not for Cahill, who gets paid to write about his dreams, although they're my idea of nightmares: caving with inexperienced pro footballers, or mountain-climbing with sorority girls, or hanging around in the Rockies waiting to be eaten by bears.

The writing in Pecked to Death by Ducks (there are no more ducks here than there were jaguars or wolverine in Cahill's earlier Jaguars Ripped my Flesh and A Wolverine is Eating my Leg) is a testament to the deftness of the human spirit. He's a deceptively good writer: at times funnier than

P J O'Rourke, but with the decency to realise that not every subject can be milked for laughs. The book's opening piece on post-war Kuwait is one of the best postscripts yet written on the Gulf conflict.

Jason Goodwin succumbed to wanderlust in a spectacular way by deciding to walk from Gdansk to Istanbul. He had always been haunted by Istanbul, but didn't want a bathetic entry to the place by plane. It would need a big incentive, or advance, to get me to walk through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Goodwin did, and the result is On Foot to the Golden Horn (Chatto pounds 15.99). The mild, amateurish insanity of the expedition - set against the eminent good sense of his girlfriend Kate, whom he somehow managed to persuade to accompany him - runs like a thread through the book. The anecdotes are good, the history relevant and the generalisations revealing. There is also a proper, if perhaps disingenuous, self-deprecating sense of his own inadequacies, as he survives on a lingua franca of German, gestures and shared cigarettes. He also writes like a dream, which is to say that his prose is dream-like as well as excellent. A pity the book ends the moment he reaches Istanbul.

Clive Leatherdale turned up in Shanghai as a teacher of advanced English. It wasn't a place he would have chosen to go, which makes this unusual among travel books; perhaps it's the friction between his sense of where he is and where he would rather be that makes The Virgin Whore and Other Chinese Characters (Desert Island Books pounds 14.99) so good. Naturally, he manages to muster up a strange affection for the place, much as anyone big-hearted enough could probably learn to love hell. He is best at trying to get along with people, and his attempt to unpick the Chinese character manages to be comic without being condescending. Exasperated by his students' tendency to pillage published works for essays, he sets them an essay on the dangers of plagiarism. They all turn in essays on plagiarism directly copied from the work of previous writers. He gives top marks to the student who has written the most incomprehensible essay, on the grounds that he couldn't have lifted it from anywhere. But the book has its serious side: Leatherdale was in China around the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre and evokes a people stunned by the dead hand of the government.

Peru, if Stephen Minta's Aguirre (Cape pounds 15.99) is anything to go by, sucks. The hazy image of the country culled from Paddington bear and Tintin books is inadequate. See-sawing between a corrupt government and maniacal guerrillas, between poverty and flashy, spurious wealth - cocaine-fuelled economies where the electricity dies at 8pm - Peru sounds like a dispiriting place, for all its beauty. Its only national hero, Minta is told, is Jorge Chavez, who in 1910 became the first man to fly over the Alps; he was born in Switzerland. Minta follows the path of colonial Peru's first anti-hero, Lope do Aguirre, the Spanish soldier who took command of a disastrous expedition to find El Dorado in 1560. Aguirre was a psychotic tyrant, the last person you'd want as your commander on a barge drifting a thousand miles down the Amazon. But his story is as timeless as Heart of Darkness (incidentally, Herzog's film Aguirre, Wrath of God, which goes unmentioned here, tinkers with the record slightly), and Minta, picking through the contemporary chronicles and offering a cautionary story, tells it brilliantly.

It's All True, by Paul Rambali (Heinemann pounds 9.99), is about Brazil. There are no Shining Path guerrillas there, but you have a good chance of getting your brains blown out by a nine-year-old. A book-writing trip to Brazil might be, in Johnny Rotten's words, a cheap holiday in someone else's misery, but Rambali is a sensitive and intelligent writer, as you might have learnt from his earlier book, French Blues.

His agenda gradually unfolds, as first he unpacks the weird, corrupt nature of Brazilian cities ('Where's the strangest place you've ever made love?' a comic from Rio was asked. 'Sao Paulo,' he replied) and then places them in the context of the jungle that surrounds them. Sentimentality about Indian tribes is often nothing more than Savlon for our consciences, but Rambali has an astute way of making a case that doesn't sound second-hand. Unlike Aguirre, he finds El Dorado. It is a shopping mall in Sao Paulo with a restaurant called America: 'In America, the cheeseburgers are plump and juicy, and the salads are called Yuppies.'

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