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. Nor is Young, the unwilling old hand at scenes of violence and political oppression, allowed to forget such things for more than a day or two at a time. On the Al Anoud, out of Beirut, men with bloodied heads are trying to kill each other. Traveling in the domain of really important godlings like Sadat, Khomeini, General Zhia, and President Marcos is not an innocent pastime; try as he does to evade his Furies, Young finds them constantly at his elbow, muscling in on almost every encounter in the book. On the rim of the prettiest landscape there is always the shadow of the political prison, the rusty stain, the figure of a thug in uniform.
We owe the godlings something. Thanks to them, Halfway Around the World is not a sentimental idyll; it is a real journey in which every passage of high elation by moonlight under a full sail or a rusty smokestack is counter-pointed by another, of frustration, anxiety, or funk. Mr. Young’s long voyage is very much like life, and it’s in the very lifelikeness of the voyage that Mr. Young’s problems as a writer start.
In his opening pages Young revels in two closely related kinds of freedom. The first is the exhilarating liberty of being afloat in the world, of casting off and leaving London far astern. The second freedom has to do with words: released from journalism, Young can afford to ride language playfully, absorbing himself in details, images, phrases that would never have found a place in his copy while he was a correspondent. So, in Patmos, appropriately enough, where Orestes fled to escape the real Furies, we are told that the Monastery of St. John was founded in 1088, but it sits beside the much more beguiling piece of information that “the girls’ braless breasts wobbled about under their T-shirts like hotwater bottles under a sheet.” The 1967 coup by the three Greek colonels is eclipsed by the observation that ice cubes dropped in ouzo turn it slowly into milk. On the water-front at Smyrna, Young spots the NATO building. For a journalist, one could hardly imagine a more important place; but here it is crisply dismissed as a “dull gray filing cabinet.” What is truly important in that chapter turns out to be a perfectly anonymous car-ferry with its ramp open on the wharf. It “looked like a hippopotamus refusing a pill”—a simile strong enough to bring the chapter to an end.
In her book on Sartre, Iris Murdoch points out that the novel habitually deals in the realm of the contingent rather than the necessary. That is even more true of the travel book. It thrives on truant felicities like hot water bottles, ice cubes in ouzo, and gulping hippos. Characters met by chance, details seen from the corner of the eye….it is a form which embraces the contingent as securely as reportorial journalism claims, at least, to bring back the necessary. The chief strength of Halfway Around the World is its alertness to all the quiddities of a marvelously, heroically unnecessary journey. Young’s liberation as a writer is infectious. It’s as if the foreign correspondent had been wearing a hood like a tethered falcon; writing the book, he’s in flight, seeing the world for the first time without tunnel vision.
It’s this literary freedom that has drawn so many writers to the travel book. It is the supreme improvisatory form: one can play it by ear; it will happily accommodate all sorts and conditions of writing. At its occasional best it works like a constellation, with autobiography, essays, stories, reportage mingling together in a single controlled blaze. More often it has the casual freedom of the scrapbook, into which any old thing can be pasted at will; a lifelike form, certainly, with all of life’s contingencies, dead ends, and artlessness. Halfway Around the World is closer to the scrapbook than the constellation; it is too true to life for its own good.
Young does have the ingredients of a driving narrative here. A man goes to sea in middle age, half to escape, half to come to terms with a past that has given him an overskeptical and hardboiled view of the world. The godlings dog his passage. His past comes back, in the form of flashbacks to old wars. Intermittently, in the wheelhouses and fo’c’s’les of tacky little ships, he comes to a private peace with himself, mostly in the company of gentle, uncomplicated men who share these traveling fragments of their lives with him. It is the common Odyssey plot, of a kind that might easily have made an autobiographical novel; and it’s this story which keeps one reading Halfway Around the World through its doldrums.
Because he is writing a travel book and not a novel, Young doesn’t stick to his story. Stories happen in the past; much of this book takes place in a hamfisted present tense. Take these sentences, for instance (and they could have been lifted from any one of a dozen recent books-about-journeys):
Harry Miller has lived in India since the war. He is an excellent naturalist….
As a vision from the sea, Singapore is still exciting….
Alex is a Greek Cypriot by birth and has represented the Associated Press in innumerable hair-raising forays….
Izmir, or Smyrna, is the third largest city….
Alan Webb has lived in Sarawak for nearly thirty years….
Such factoid knobs and protuberances announce that Halfway Around the World is both something more and something less than a work of the imagination. Its real locations survive the progress of the author through them, while the characters in it have names and addresses of a kind one could verify from a telephone directory. Their stubborn actuality simply won’t boil down into the story, and they stick out at abrupt right angles to the central narrative thread.
Yes, of course they are real—they do live on in a tense beyond the reach of the book as a story. Yet when we meet them in the book, these people and places, the Alan Webbs and Harry Millers, Smyrnas and Singapores, are fictions. They are real to us only insofar as the writer can create them on the page, and it’s not enough merely to assert that they exist and therefore need no creation.
This is the awkward question that every serious travel book must face. How far dare one invent what is already ascertainably there? Gavin Young’s answer is easygoing to a fault. He invents when the mood takes him, and asserts when it doesn’t. When the story flags, he fills in with a few paragraphs on Egyptian politics, a potted biography of an old friend, architectural notes, a stray memory. Then the voyage, recreated in imagination, picks up again.
The strongest sequences are those on shipboard. Young is marvelous at building up the small, self-contained community of a boat at sea: it is his great good place, and his writing works over its construction lovingly. Sailing from Dubai on the Al Raza, for instance, “that inelegant polluter of the breezes of the Arabian Sea,” Young writes at the top of his best as he explores the deep, calming harmony between himself, the ship, and its Baluchi crew. The vessel is a derelict tub: her engine breaks down; under sail, she slops about on a windless ocean. Yet Young turns her into a precious, sane corner of a crazy and frustrating world.
Aboard the Al Raza dialogue takes place in lyric pidgin. Its happy mishmash of phrase-book Arabic, phrase-book English, embraces, and handshakes is the language of sanity. Young asks one of the hands if dhows like this one are often lost at sea:
“Oooooooh, often,” said Sumar, waving his arms happily to indicate fatal storms. “Big winds—phweee! Big waves—oooooow! They go over. Many, many. Oooh, yah.”
A little later, Sumar points to where the coast of Iran smudges into Pakistan—
“Before sometimes I go to fish in there.” Sumar frowned indignantly. “But Irani militia there shoot at me—tuk! tuk!” He mimed a man firing a rifle. “I go away quickly—Khomeini peoples no good.” He added scornfully, “Old man with beard.”
In this seaborne dislocation from the political world, the simplicities of pidgin are able to tell a kind of truth which is unavailable to the language of the landsman. It is what being afloat is really about: the sea, and the small impromptu family aboard ship, restore Young to wonder—and to common sense.
The book is rich in characters like Sumar and in ships like the Al Raza. Against them, though, one must set the old chums: the administrators, planters, foreign correspondents—the Alan Webbs and Harry Millers. Few have any real life on the page. Where Young is excellent at creating dialogue for his deckhands and captains, he makes his journalists talk in unconvincing blocks of copy. At sea, he is a writer in the steps of Conrad; ashore, he goes back to his old haunts and his old role as a newspaperman, hammering out routine, and often disjointed, dispatches from foreign parts.
He has much the same difficulty when it comes to the problem of managing his own character in the book. Sometimes he is there, a fully invented picaresque hero. When pirates overtake his crippled launch on the Sulu Sea, it is Young who saves the day by grinning furiously and taking all their pictures with his Polaroid. As “Yong” or “Mr. Gavin,” he is one of his own best creations: a self-deprecating quickthinker, easily charmed, easily irritated, a craggy, wounded, affectionate man who is addicted to swimming out of his depth to find himself. As long as this engaging character is firmly in the center of things, his book has the imaginative solidity of good fiction. Yet there are long, long stretches when the hero seems to have taken leave of the narrative altogether. The details keep on coming, the voyage continues to be recorded, but where has “Mr. Gavin” gone? The answer is that he’s regressed, to being just the observer from the Observer.
As anyone who has experimented with the form of the travel book will know, these are common problems. The relationship between the journey and the book, the reality and the tale, is a very tricky one indeed. Mythologize the experience too much, and veracity leaks, then pours, out of the story. Travel books need their raw edges. They cannot, on the other hand, afford to be simple inventories of everything that happened on the trip. Too many of the events and people in Halfway Around the World have earned their place in the book merely because they happened to be there in life. If only Gavin Young had lightened ship by throwing overboard everything that wasn’t essential to the quest which should have governed his narrative, he would have written a really fine book. As it is, he has brought back a fascinating collection of souvenirs. As with all collections, some exhibits are boring, others gems. They provide all the material for a patterned story, but this book is not that story; at best, it is fragments, episodes, notes, drafts of a kind that would lead one to say that this is going to be a wonderful book.
The blurb announces that Halfway Around the World is indeed only half of a long story. Mr. Young is setting off again from Shanghai and continuing eastward back to Cornwall where the idea of going to sea started. If he sacks the foreign correspondent in himself, if he attends more to the tale in the Jamesian sense, if he dramatizes himself more fully, and shapes and invents with more consistency, he will (I enviously suspect) turn that journey into a classic book of travel.
January 21, 1982