Now, Voyager

Halfway Around the World: An Improbable Journey

by Gavin Young
Random House, 473 pp., $16.50

Halfway Around the World tells two tales in parallel. The first is the official story, of Mr. Young’s adventures on and off the high seas as he tried to make his way by cargo boat, launch, and ferry from Piraeus to Canton. The second story (just as engrossing) is about his adventures (almost as hazardous) with the travel book as a literary form. The two intertwine to make a vivid, flawed, revealing book whose botches and lacunae are as interesting as its flights of brilliance.

Both journeys started with the same liberating idea. Mr. Young had been a journalist, the chief foreign correspondent of the London Observer. In that role, he had traveled altogether too fast and too purposefully; a creature of deadlines, flight numbers, and assignments. He had gone wherever there was trouble in the world, to report wars and revolutions. In 1979 he set out to retrieve his own lost innocence of vision. As a child, he had grown up by the sea in Cornwall; when he traveled then (as a passenger on a coaster carrying china clay to Antwerp) he’d been content with the simple magic of the going, untouched as yet by the adult’s hysteria over schedules and destinations. So, this time too, he would go by sea, slowly. (In its English edition his book has the much stronger title, Slow Boats to China.) He wouldn’t travel as a journalist, but as a writer, with the writer’s freedom to play truant and to follow his own nose rather than the cabled instructions of an editor. It was to be a return in two senses—to childlikeness and to places that Mr. Young had seen before through the unchildlike eyes of the salaried correspondent.

It was a lovely plan; and of course it could only have worked out pat in an unfallen world, where it might have produced a dully innocent book. In fact, Young was in trouble from the beginning, wrestling with gods just as tiresome and unpredictable as the ones who made such a mess of Odysseus’s itinerary. Red tape and timetables are the late twentieth century’s equivalent to fair and foul winds, and the parts of Aeolus, Zeus, and Poseidon are played, in Halfway Around the World, by a gang of shipping agents and consular officials. Passages and visas are granted and withheld in bewildering succession. The chief business of these bureaucratic godlings is to remind Mr. Young that he is, after all, a grown-up in a grown-up world. Whatever fancy notions he may have had in his head, his fate is to stand in line and sweat and curse like everyone else.

He is only halfway down the Red Sea, at Jedda, when the godlings score with a vengeance. A complacent Saudi with a rubber stamp robs Young of 2,800 miles of his voyage by making him take a 747 to Dubai. Eleven hundred miles are lopped off at Karachi; another 900 go at Goa …

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