Paperbacks;Books

5th June 1998 at 01:00
To call Charles Nicholl a travel writer would be a simplification. All travel writers, of course, delve into the historical background of the place they visit. But Nicholl goes to a place with a specific historical purpose. His last book, The Creature in the Map, was a fascinating exploration of the idea of El Dorado, of the real places that lie behind it, and of the act of creating a mythical geography.

He also revealed an acute interest in the psychology of his historical fellow-travellers, and this psychological aspects is given full rein in Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91 (Vintage pound;7.99).

This is a book about the urge to travel, to be somewhere else, to - as Rimbaud said of himself - "traffick in the unknown". It is also a story both inherently dramatic in itself and interesting for what it tells us about one of the foremost figures of modernism. There is no lit crit of the hallucinatory poems, but Nicholl peppers the narrative with apt quotations. Rimbaud's early career in bohemian Paris, is told with gripping novelistic power, while the account of his retreat to the blasted interior of Ethiopia, is written with radiant realism. A brilliant work.

In the United States, the romantic idea of a land beyond the pale of civilisation - the idea that animated both Rimbaud and, on a less elevated level, Dances with Wolves - has often been associated with the West. But in American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest (Penguin pound;8.99), historian Gregory H Nobles shows that the frontier, while never exactly crowded, was always the arena for contact and conflict. Indians fell out with Indians. Indians fell out with Europeans. Europeans fell out with Indians and fought each other. It was, perhaps, America's first melting pot.

Nobles traces this often bloody history from the origins of "the frontier" in the 16th century to its "closure" in the 1890s, using the latest scholarly findings but never succumbing to that disease of academia, a soul-numbing abstraction.

Abstraction would seem, on the surface, to be the fault of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (Vintage pound;8.99). This is a scientist's attempt to answer the question as to why what used to be called "progress" has happened at different rates between the West and the "Third World".

A basic question, and Diamond gives basic answers. (Broadly, that it is to do with environment rather than race - though in fascinatingly complex ways.) With chapter titles ranging from "How to Make an Almond" to "How China became Chinese", Guns, Germs and Steel reminded me a little of those 18th-century "universal histories" that hope optimistically to frame all experience within a single Enlightened view. In fact, Diamond is explaining how history became possible, not history itself. It is a second-order explanation. I was unclear at the end whether Diamond appreciates this distinction, or the distinction between saying that historians can learn from science and that history itself can be a science.

For evidence that people tend to be hot-headed rather than cooly analytical about the past, one can turn to Peter Partner's God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam (HarperCollins pound;9.99). In tracing this litany of conflict from its Biblical origins up to contemporary, Western fears, Partner is sensitive to the way subjective views of the past can be used to justify universalist claims. This is a true, richly detailed act of historical recovery, making no claims to be "grand theory" of Holy Wars. Indeed, one of his points is that groups like Hizbullah arise out of particularly modern conditions in the Arab world.

Adam Lively

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