- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

In Jan Morris' Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (Simon & Schuster, $23, 208 pages, frontispiece map), the mind's eye does the traveling and the reader goes along for the ride. The accomplished Welsh-born writer makes clear at the outset that she is in her summing-up phase. For the last in her long line of travel-cum-history books she deliberately has chosen a subject of enticing ambiguity: the city of Trieste, whose acquaintance she notes has spanned her whole adult life and which she describes as "an allegory of limbo." Tellingly then, the epigraph is a quote from Wallace Stevens: "I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself."
We also are treated to a reflective history of this Italian seaport situated at the topmost corner of the Adriatric Sea that was, among many permutations, most famously the pride of Austria's Hapsburg Empire. A haven for merchants, Trieste also drew a wealth of artists, writers and such intellectual pioneers as Sigmund Freud exiles all. Irishman James Joyce, while working at Berlitz, was an English language tutor to master Italian ironist Italo Svevo. Joyce was extremely prolific while in residence, penning "A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man" and "Dubliners" there.
The city's allure was and is curiously impersonal in spite of its dramatic role as jousting ground between Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia. "Trieste makes one ask sad questions of oneself," the author writes in melancholy fashion, welcoming us to a subjective state of mind that makes the trip every bit as worthwhile as her objective descriptions of people and places encountered along the way. You couldn't wish for a better traveling companion. As an added lure, the book is handsomely packaged.

Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir (Picador/USA, $25, 352 pages, frontispiece illus.) is a splendid achievement in a slightly different vein. Matthew Chapman is a first-time book author and a Manhattan-based Hollywood screenwriter who also happens to be the great-great-grandson of evolutionist Charles Darwin. A visit to Dayton, Tenn., the scene of the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which Clarence Darrow sought to defend Darwin's teachings against the entrenched forces of fundamentalist Christian teaching, turns into a personal hegira when Mr. Chapman finally comes to grips with his own stress-filled life that he sees spiraling out of control.
This could end up as just another boring confessional but for the author's ironic turn of mind and ability to describe his own changing emotions and attitudes. We are introduced to many memorable contemporary characters portrayed vividly and sympathetically. The author's experience goes far beyond the cliched confrontation of arrogant urban liberal up against prideful Southern rural conservatives, although he does manage some challenging cross-examination of present-day so-called creationists.
Humor and high intelligence keep the writer, and us, engrossed as this diehard atheist journeys to the Bible Belt and finds redemption in a way he didn't anticipate. His story would make a worthy film of the kind for which Mr. Chapman is known (the rituals of selling a successful screenplay are shrewdly demythologized in chapters where he examines his own past life with a great deal of comic angst.)
Gloria, owner of the B&B; called Magnolia House where he first stays, would be a choice part: a genuine survivor of life's bad turnings and a colorful contrast to Mr. Chapman's alcoholic mother with whose memory he so poignantly wrestles. And any actor would clamor for the chance to show William Jennings Bryan in action again. We're cheering for Mr. Chapman at the end when he acknowledges what he calls his "persistent pessimism" about religious faith and spiritual endeavors but shows his determination to embrace life in spite of any evidence that it has meaning. Like Gloria, he is not going to give in to despair on this transforming journey against the background of the contemporary South.

Just as it isn't necessary to know much about the Scopes trial to enjoy Mr. Chapman's memoir, a reader need not be familiar with Graham Greene's many novels to enjoy the exploits of journalist Julia Llewllyn Smith as she visits some of the world's most dangerous and degraded countries that were the settings for his work. In Traveling On the Edge: Journeys in the Footsteps of Graham Greene (St. Martin's, $24.95, 304 pages), she interweaves chance encounters with some of the people Greene knew or knew about, she supplying deft observations on present-day political and social conditions in Mexico, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Paraguay and Argentina, concluding with an epilogue in England's Berkhamsted, Greene's birthplace and the setting for his last great novel, "The Human Factor."
"Now, at seventy-three, he realized that the best way of escape might lie in returning to one's roots," the author writes. Her own fascination with Greene had been sparked by a visit to Haiti for another book project. Her reading on that trip was his 1966 novel "The Comedians." She "began to catalogue mentally Greene's destinations. So many of them were in lost, lonely, neglected parts of the world that had always interested me." So off she went, this brave and clever lady. Luckily, she survived. The book could have used some maps and photographs to enhance her journey to "Greeneland."

In This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland (Pantheon, $27.50, 377 pages, illus.), Gretel Ehrlich writes about another Greenland, the real one, and her adventures are wonderfully enlightening about the world way above the treeline. She writes beautifully, alternating her own experiences on several trips in the 1990s with those of Knud Rasmussen, the famous Danish-Inuit explorer and ethnographer, decades earlier. We are immersed in a civiliation that is as far removed from an urban existence as possible, an escape not into the self but into lives of almost unimaginable isolation and hardship. Her account is handsomely illustrated by black and white drawings, and maps are supplied handily inside the book's covers.
The author is well known for her autobiographical tale, "A Match to the Heart," about being struck by lightning. Nature here is cruel in predictable ways, and the coping mechanisms she describes in ice-bound surroundings, living off raw animal meat with clothing and shelter of animal hides, is an astounding testimony to mankind's ability to endure.

Shephard Sherbell's photographs of the last years of the dying Soviet Union assembled in Soviets: Pictures from the End of the USSR (Yale University Press, $45, 276 pages, illus.) attest to humankind's ability to survive when up against a nearly impenetrable monolithic state government, an empire that encompassed 15 different republics. Mr. Sherbell wisely decided to limit his descriptions of the 230 black-and-white images selected from time he spent there between 1988 and 1993, often on assignment for the German magazine Der Spiegel.
The images are haunting and speak for themselves. Caption material is given only at the end, The various categories, such as "Work," "Belief," "Energy," "Change" are in no particular order. A reader might question the title "Soviets" at the outset since the material shows in unsentimental fashion the tragedies and occasional small triumphs of life in a post-Communist mostly Russian world.
The choice was made because "nearly everyone living there still uses the term Soyuz, 'the union,' as if the entity had never dissolvedfl" Mr. Sherbell writes in brief introductions to each section." Serge Schmemann, the New York Times' deputy foreign editor, supplies a foreword that is far more pessimistic in tone than the cumulative impression of the photographs. "Look, we have survived," the young man in the cover photo seems to say as he stares out at us immersed in some makeshift bathtub against the hulk of a rotting ship in the distance. This is an unparalleled history of the cost of the grand Soviet experiment but also acknowledgment of what Mr. Sherbell calls the Russian people's determination "to build their lives anew."

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.



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