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Friday Book: Seeking the heart of Colombia

THE RAILWAYS of South America have a peculiar fascination for English armchair travellers. Since many of them were once built or owned by the British, perhaps this is hardly surprising. Yet the romance clearly goes much deeper than this banal connection, even surviving the dyspeptic comments of Paul Theroux, who made his name by disliking them. So besotted are the British with the railways that Matthew Parris once felt obliged to write a counter-current article describing the particular pleasure of travelling through Latin America by bus.

Stephen Smith, who is a reporter for Channel 4 News as well as a talented essayist, is a serious victim of the railway bug. But at least he can claim an excuse. His maternal grandfather lived and worked on the railways of Colombia and, to the family's slight embarrassment if not shame, acquired a Colombian mistress and sired two children. On of them survives as Smith's half-uncle.

Intrigued by this family tale of a black sheep in a land of white powder, Smith set off for the South American mainland with little more than a few old photographs, a handful of cliches about Colombian violence and drugs, and a reporter's resourcefulness in getting at the facts. He had already written a well-regarded book about Cuba and must have hoped to repeat the achievement.

The personal quest for roots, or for researching the obscurer tendrils of one's stock, has been turned in recent years into a literary genre. Writers go in pursuit of their mothers and fathers, and investigate the history of more distant relations with narcissistic enthusiasm. It makes the resulting book more interesting to read, if more difficult to write, if the selected forebears crossed oceans or continents, allying the genre more closely to travel-writing than to psychoanalysis.

The downside of this kind of story is that the eventual discovery of the Holy Grail may prove to be less fascinating than was hoped or expected. Unless some truly remarkable denouement emerges, the account of the quest itself must lie at the heart of the story. The metaphor holds up better than most with a train journey since, as everyone knows, it is always better to travel than to arrive.

Stephen Smith does his best with rather slender material. He catches a train and eventually finds his uncle, who turns out to be an impoverished peasant with a picture of their shared forebear on the wall. There is no instant chemistry, no great meeting of minds, and no possible basis for any kind of continuing relationship.

We discover little about the lovely Beatriz, the teenage mistress, for she has died long since. So the book consists chiefly of Smith's preliminary travels and investigations, and his encounters with the vivid, violent and always unexpected republic of Colombia.

The end result is curiously flat and uninteresting. Smith is a competent reporter, who meets some colourful people and tells a handful of stories, but he seems only to scratch the surface. He is more interested in reporting and analysing his own reactions to his new surroundings than in trying to understand what makes Colombia tick. We are told that the country is very violent, but he is never able to explain why this should be.

Smith makes no effort to understand why people might be in favour of the guerrillas, or indeed the drug barons. He favourably contrasts the methodical railway work of his grandfather's time with the deep social crisis that affects Colombia today, writing with the kind of ignorant nostalgia that old colonials might have for pre-independence India.

Smith is a nice writer, and so, in spite of these criticisms, his book is very easy to read. I don't often recommend people to write novels, but I think he might well be happier handling fiction than fact.