In the globalizing 1990s--in an age when the shrinking modern world seems in danger of robbing travel, and by extension travel writing, of its power to surprise--the question you need to ask of your travel writers is: If they go to Iceland, do they know who the Sugarcubes are?
Pico Iyer went to Iceland, walked its “chilly, ghostly streets,” traversed its harsh, treeless, volcanic, geyser-pocked landscape (“a country so lunar that NASA astronauts did their training there”), was amused by its “tranquil dottiness” and impressed by its hyper-literacy (five daily newspapers in the small capital of Reykjavik; lighthouse keepers reading Shakespeare to fishing fleets), dutifully noted its guidebook highlights (a glacier three times bigger than Luxembourg; the oldest parliament in Europe), grazed through its history (from Vikings to Bobby Fischer), and then stopped in a place that was not on the usual tourist circuit, but that offered a fresh and penetrating angle on this distant island enclave--the Gaukar a Stong pub, filled with blond young Icelanders whirling around to a local band’s version of the Doors’ “Break on Through (to the Other Side).”
“There is, in fact, a deafening strain of rock ‘n’ roll in Iceland,” Iyer writes, “and it is the voice of kids banging their fists against the narrow limits of their culture.” The Sugarcubes, he knows, are an “eccentric dance band” that have gained a following in America, Iceland’s “most famous recent export.”
It’s an eye for that kind of scene that makes Iyer, an essayist for Time magazine, a trustworthy travel writer for the MTV generation. In his two previous books, “Video Night in Kathmandu” (1988) and “The Lady and the Monk” (1991), and now in his latest, the beautifully titled “Falling Off the Map,” he has been establishing a reputation as a rightful heir to the tradition of Jan Morris, Paul Theroux and company--not only because of his elegant prose and sharp observations and wide collection of passport stamps, but also because of his recognition of the changing demands of the genre.
When the world was a larger place, before airlines and television opened its farther reaches, readers expected travel writers simply to show them things they might otherwise never have seen. To visit Peshawar back then, you might have traveled vicariously in the company of an intrepid but slightly eccentric, Oxbridge-accented, minor-titled, trust-fund adventurer fond of Latinate prose, quaint native customs and obscure corners of the Empire. Now you can just switch on CNN.
To get you to read, and think, about a place you could much more easily just watch, a writer today needs a new strategy, and Iyer comes uniquely well-equipped for the job. A citizen of India, born in England, raised in America, educated at Eton, Oxford and Harvard, he has, not surprisingly, a fine taste for irony and dislocation, and he is fluent in the international language of pop culture. He knows the history behind the great Buddhist temples of Bhutan, but he also knows whose B-list face that is on the poster in the video store in downtown Thimphu (it’s Phoebe Cates). And, most importantly, he writes the kind of lyrical, flowing prose that could make Des Moines sound beguiling.
“Falling Off the Map” is a collection of magazine pieces about obscure or ill-explored countries, deftly linked by an introduction that explains the book’s subtitle, “Some Lonely Places of the World.” “Lonely Places are the places that don’t fit in; the places that have no seat at our international dinner tables,” Iyer writes. North Korea is a Lonely Place, by his definition, and so, too, are Paraguay and Cuba. “More than in space, then, it is in time that Lonely Places are often exiled, and it is their very remoteness from the present tense that gives them their air of haunted glamour.”
In Argentina he finds “Nabokovian rainbows of butterflies"; a sleepy Andean village where bowler-hatted women sell Batmobiles; Patagonian penguins padding off together in pairs “like weary old men on their way to the pub"; and, in the chic quarters of Buenos Aires, an upper-crust world that feels “less like Europe than some New Yorker’s idea of Europe, a selective, sentimentalized, exile’s version of a world that had faded long ago--Europe as it could be seen only at the distance of seven thousand miles.”
In the gray Orwellian netherworld of North Korea--amid the wide, carless streets, the megaliths and monuments and featureless blocks of Pyongyang, the capital--he finds “Marxism in the raw and by the book; both the apotheosis of the system and its epitaph.” On a black-and-white TV monitor in his hotel room he watches children recite patriotic slogans.
In Cuba, with its fin-tailed Chryslers and assorted other trapped and musty relics from the pre-Castro years, Iyer senses “the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set.” At the War Crimes Museum in Saigon he sees an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt in a display case devoted to “Cultural Ideological Sabotage.” He tells of a terrible, foolish 19th-Century war in Paraguay that left just 2,100 adult males alive in the entire country.
J. O’Rourke has covered some of this same territory, but Iyer does it with a different voice--less amusing, but more thoughtful, and with none of the snide, Ugly-American, let-the-natives-caddy tone. Some of Iyer’s Lonely Places just aren’t as interesting as others (Australia, for one, feels tacked on as an afterthought); and sometimes the plush smell of expense-account travel can grow annoying; and sometimes the lack of other voices can be frustrating (he quotes only a handful of people by name, and many of the rest are taxi drivers, hotel workers and other Usual Suspects); and sometimes he can seem too wrapped up in the ironies of observing, rather than the nuances of reporting.
But his main job here, after all, is to record what a traveler sees, not what a resident feels, and there aren’t many writers who can do it better than this: “somehow, in Saigon, it is always 9:30 at night in some flashy, shady dive, and a chanteuse in a sequined microskirt is belting out ‘I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation . . . ' to the accompaniment of violins and cellos played by girls in shocking-pink miniskirts.”
“Here in Bhutan, sir, we cannot imagine America!” a young librarian in Thimphu tells Iyer. But we here in America, after reading Iyer’s book, we can at least begin to imagine Bhutan.