BOOK REVIEW / Accidental tourist: Natural opium: Travelling Tales - Diane Johnson: Chatto, pounds 10.99

Joan Smith@polblonde
Monday 05 October 2015 01:22
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THE American novelist Diane Johnson opens her book of travel stories with a quotation from Paul Bowles, in The Sheltering Sky, on the difference between a tourist and a traveller. The tourist, according to Bowles, 'accepts his own civilisation without question', while the traveller is altogether more discerning, using foreign travel as a yardstick with which to measure life back home. In a sense the distinction is redundant: few people are going to stand up and identify themselves with the despised tourist. Johnson certainly doesn't, asserting in her preface that she has travelled a lot, 'not usually as a tourist', even though some of her journeys have coincided with 'the usual tourist trail'. She further distances herself by quoting P J O'Rourke's bilious and mildly racist dismissal of the behaviour of various nationalities - Venezuelans, Swiss, Bengalis - when abroad.

One suspects that the true locus of difference is more simply expressed: I am a traveller, you are a tourist. That Johnson troubles herself with the distinction at all suggests an uneasiness about her own qualifications as a travel writer, possibly because many of the journeys she describes were undertaken not independently but as an adjunct: she is the wife of a doctor who travels frequently in the Third World. Indeed for someone who is not a tourist, Johnson often does touristy things, such as shopping in Singapore with another medical wife for a fake Rolex watch.

The more serious problem, however, is that in seeking to avoid mythologising or Mayle-ite tendencies when writing about foreigners, Johnson permits herself a different kind of distortion. She admits that the 'horrible congressmen' whose boorish conversation embarrasses her, in the text, in an Egyptian restaurant, were actually overheard in the Kahala Hilton in Honolulu. Names have been altered, the events of several trips telescoped into one, and Johnson owns up to availing herself 'of some of the rights of the novelist to tidy and pare the account'.

This is unsettling for the reader, who has no way of knowing which characters and events are real and which embroidered. It also sits oddly with Johnson's beguiling frankness, in her chapter on the Great Barrier Reef, about the way in which her precarious emotional state - the result of a messy divorce back home in San Francisco - influences her attitudes. Johnson has written sensitively in the past about the experience of being an outsider, chiefly in her marvellous novel Persian Nights, and the doubts and caveats she expresses in the preface to Natural Opium suggest she might have been better advised to stick to fiction.

It is also hard to resist the conclusion that medical conferences are not ideal material for a travel book. Johnson's weekend trip to London, undertaken solely because her husband has been invited to give his opinion on the treatment of a sick Pakistani banker, involves her in nothing more exciting than shopping in Liberty's and visits to art galleries. The revelation at the end of the chapter that the banker is a top official at BCCI hardly justifies its inclusion here. Even Johnson's harrowing description of Aids victims dying in conditions of almost unimaginable squalor in Africa, lying two to a bed on mattresses 'pierced so that the incurable diarrhoea could drool into bucket underneath without bothering anyone', is passed on by her husband. Such stark observations are uneasily juxtaposed with accounts of lavish banquets in Thailand and Switzerland recalled on the pretext of demonstrating some quirk of national character.

There is also a concluding chapter on Johnson's trip to Utah on a project never realised, to make a film about the death by shooting of a fanatical member of the Mormon Church. Johnson may be trying to make a point about the foreignness of her own country, the way in which we are all strangers in our own land, but her account feels like padding, a melodramatic finale to a scrappy, insubstantial book.

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