- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

Brazil has great music but the country’s politics could stand an upgrade. Or so it seems to Peter Robb, author of A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions (Henry Holt, $26, 329 pages), a nonfiction narrative about Brazil’s greatly fluctuating efforts at social and economic stability. Judging from the evidence he presents, complete with a chronology going back to 1000 B.C., it is entirely appropriate to adopt his sardonic view of the events and personalities that have shaped the history of South America’s largest country. As a travelogue, the book is an eye-opener that shatters every happy-days tourist poster you have seen.

The book’s title is strange but entirely apt. It is the author’s way of establishing his personal take on the place — stemming from the time 20 years ago when he was nearly killed, a carving knife held to his throat by one of Rio’s desperate poor. A vivid account of this incident leads him into the quixotic political and cultural history of the richly endowed former Portuguese colony, culminating in the election of its current president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“Like everyone, I went to Brazil to get away,” he writes at the outset, without specifying what he was escaping. His final words, presumably before taking off again: “It seemed to me that Brazil had been a long time waiting for Lula.” The vicissitudes along the way to the 2002 election of the Workers’ Party candidate are enthralling when they aren’t appalling.

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Where Mr. Robb is gritty, Pico Iyer in Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign (Knopf, $22.95, 223 pages) is elegiac and almost ethereal. He describes the traveler’s mindset — hence the book’s title — as he makes his way through a series of essays dating back to 2000. He takes the reader from a Zen outpost in California, where he gives us an intriguing portrait of poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen (“A Gathering Around a Complexity”), to the present-day status of the famously decadent Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince, Haiti, in an essay that ends with an existential quote from the late Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz.

We never are sure why Mr. Iyer alights in these places. It’s a tribute to his skill at making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar, that the question seems unnecessary. He is the wizard of wonder, a classy gadabout whom we are only too glad to have as guide. The more exotic the scene the better we like him.

With his perceptive mind, he is a master at giving a contemporary slant to ancient cultures and times, following his goal: “The classic travel writer takes us on a quest, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s after. … The traveler, if he comes from a place of comfort, travels, in part, to be stood on his head; to lose track of tenses, or at least to be back to essentials, free of the details of home,” he writes in the midst of an exploration of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.

Some 60 pages later, he devotes a whole chapter, called “Nightwalking,” to the contemporary traveler’s mental peregrinations. “The lure of modern travel, for many of us, is that we don’t go from A to B so much as from A to Z, or from A to alpha … we speed between continents and think we have conquered both space and time,” he concludes.

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In The Fellowship of Ghosts: A Journey Through the Mountains of Norway (National Geographic, $24, 288 pages), author Paul Watkins is, literally, more down to earth, writing about his adventures exploring Norway’s impressive mountain ranges northwest of Oslo. The ghosts he encounters are the stories of past adventurers who sought out the territory in similar fashion, and the spirits that lend a mournful aspect to the forbidding landscape.

“I remain deeply changed by my time in Norway,” he says in the epilogue. “It was a journey from which I do not think I will ever completely return. A part of me will always be out there, in the company of Williams, Tjernagel, and the Colony men, whose souls must roam there if they roam at all.” That would be recommendation alone for someone to follow in his footsteps, since one of the prime benefits of travel is to engage fully in the experience and feel transformed in positive ways.

The rigors of the route Mr. Watkins followed so capably would discourage most visitors, however. He went solo for the most part, enduring the necessary hardships of cold and wet endemic to the terrain. No modern technological assists for him. A visiting scholar teaching fiction at New Jersey’s Lawrenceville School for eight years before quitting and taking off for Norway, he no doubt exulted in this immersion into the wild.

Mr. Watkins, known for his previous memoir “Stand Before Your God,” ably examines the robust and honest Norwegian character and opens the reader’s eyes to the strange beauty and magnificence of that country’s fabled fjords. The secret to overcoming melancholy in such open, seemingly unreal places, he says, “is to learn to be still … What emerges is a kind of interior stillness that, if you are patient, comes upon you suddenly, like the breaking of a wave, as if you were being suddenly absorbed into everything around you.”

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Moving from the mystical to the mundane, Shaun Briley’s How Not to Live Abroad: Surviving Rustic Bliss in the Spanish Countryside (Citadel Press, $19.95, 282 pages) tells of the frustrations involved when man isn’t content simply to observe nature but tries to tame it to his own ends.

This provokes the thought: What hath Peter Mayle wrought? Ages ago, the ex-advertising man wrote about the charms of Provence and his travails in setting up house there. Then came everything we didn’t need to know about expatriates living the good life in Tuscany. Spain and other eminently attractive places were sure to follow.

The latest version is a refreshing twist on the by-now-familiar tale of a transplant coping with the vexations of becoming part of the Mediterranean landscape. The young Mr. Briley, with a minimum of florid description and a great deal of humor, gives the lowdown on what it is like to start from scratch and create a new life.

Mr. Briley and his girlfriend bought a decrepit stone farmhouse in southeast Spain, almost on a whim. They had all the right dreams: to escape from a respectable but predictable urban routine as computer consultants in rain-whacked England and become less stressed savants — with an almond farm no less — in sunny Spain.

It made sense in a way. Mr. Briley is an Anglo-American who “didn’t feel wholly at home in America or England.” So, he writes, “I was quite ready to go to Spain or someplace else and not feel at home there either.”

Even a place where a toilet wasn’t available and scorpions abound. Stay tuned for the movie. Expect a happy ending.

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

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