Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

"You can't eat the view," runs the rural Irish riposte to misty-eyed tourists that Tim Robinson quotes in his wonderful Connemara: Listening to the Wind. Too often, mediocre travel writers do just that. They wolf down surface impressions while starving human subjects - and readers - of proper understanding. Over the past decade, the genre in Britain has sunk into a crisis of purpose. The recent death of Eric Newby, whose classic treks (from A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush to The Bog Red Train Ride) did so much to bridge the gap between the pre-war, late-imperial vagabond and today's weekend-supplement adventurer, felt like the closing of a significant departure-gate.

After all, the world has shrunk. The exotic back-of-beyond turned into a low-cost break. The colourful natives began to talk back to the well-meaning patrician in the safari suit. As for jokey blokes with a gimmick (across the Gobi on a skateboard?), they almost make one pine for the footloose Old Etonian of yore, with his keen appreciation of Sufi poetry or Berber goatherds.

Yet, rather surprisingly, this year has seen an ailing form rise from its sickbed and dance. Robinson's Connemara (Penguin Ireland, £20) dances quite beautifully, in part because this West-of-Ireland settled Yorkshireman writes as a long-term émigré. As he attends to "the sound of history" in the boggy but lovely landscapes west of Galway, he summons up his home, not just a spot he visits. The book, first of a planned trilogy, strides between folklore and flora, mythology and geology, in gorgeous sentences that spin poetry out of "troubled times and windy spaces".

Robinson triumphs by sticking to his home turf. Elsewhere, the prose of place revived when gifted authors hitched a lift from events - above all, in the Near and Middle East. In Shadow of the Silk Road (Chatto & Windus, £20), Colin Thubron crosses 7,000 miles of Asia, from China to Turkey. Gracefully, self-effacingly, his journey touches on pressure-points of geopolitics - the rise of China and political Islam, the fall-out from the Soviet collapse. Yet it does so with a flair for character and culture that weaves from every arid upland pass or baffling border town a tapestry of detail as rich as the cloths that first drew traders down this route. Jason Elliot may prove too garrulous a narrator for fans of Thubron-style delicacy. But his Iranian voyages in Mirrors of the Unseen (Picador, £16.99) will help curious Westerners to grasp the roots and branches of this complex civilisation, from the "wholesome genius" of its art to gridlock and gourmet meals in Tehran.

As for Rory Stewart's Occupational Hazards (Picador, £17.99), this is a travel book like no other. Galloping from reckless idealism to cold-eyed disillusion, the diplomat-turned-author records his post-invasion year as a coalition governor in southern Iraq. Permanent opponents of the war should read it as closely as surviving supporters (both of them). As an account, farcical but tragic, of "taking risks and taking sides" in the eye of a neo-colonial storm, his book ought to endure as a work of witness and of warning.

From the centre of another whirlwind, Linda Grant fashioned a frank and vivid view of Israel, The People on the Street (Virago, £9.99). Talking to hard-bitten settlers, thrill-seeking clubbers or guilty soldiers on checkpoints, she uncovers not a single-minded superpower but a "ramshackle Middle Eastern bazaar" - a nation cursed both by Europe's genocidal past and by its "corrupt" hold over Palestinian lands and lives. Like the other authors who made 2006 an unexpected vintage year for the literature of place, Grant captures not just the look of the present but "the sound of history". The travel literature that can still earn its passage will be an art that unfolds not only in space but - above all - in time.

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