Friday Book: Seeking the heart of Colombia

COCAINE TRAIN: TRACING MY BLOODLINE THROUGH COLOMBIA BY STEPHEN SMITH, LITTLE, BROWN, pounds 17.99

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine