Travelling companion

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
There are three approaches to holiday reading: escapism, self-improvement, and Schadenfreude. I think Schadenfreude - reading about other people's ghastly travel experiences while you relax on a long-distance train - wins hands down: you can empathise with them without having to endure the experience.

Paul Theroux, particularly in The Old Patagonian Express and The Great Railway Bazaar (both Penguin Pounds 6.99), makes an excellent travelling companion because he understands that the journey is as important, if not more than, the destination. Theroux never lingers long enough in a place to bore you with it, he always has to catch a train to Mandalay or Vientiane. His attitude to the people he meets is unsentimental, sometimes curmudgeonly, but always perceptive. Descriptive passages, when they come, are sharp.

Paul Theroux travels for the sake of it, but John Ridgway always has to have a purpose. The Road to Elizabeth (Penguin, out of print) is his extraordinary account of how he led his wife and daughter on a dangerous trek across the altiplano and into the Peruvian jungle to find the orphaned child of a friend murdered by Shining Path guerillas. The book has every nightmare for the delectation of the armchair traveller - altitude sickness, huge tarantulas, vertiginous mountain passes and terrorists.The little girl, Elizabeth, was rescued and subsequently adopted by the family and now lives with the Ridgways in Scotland.

The horrors of abroad can be cultural as well as physical. Hilary Mantel's novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Penguin Pounds 6.99), is based on personal experience of her time in Saudi Arabia. The heroine, Frances Shore, an educated, active Western woman, finds her life reduced overnight to cooking and housework, relieved only by strictly chaperoned shopping trips to the palatial shops crammed with useless luxury goods (furs in Saudi Arabia?). Women venturing into the streets without their husbands are liable to be arrested by the religious police and expats are told not to ask questions. Told in an economical style, it's a story of suffocating boredom and fear in a paranoid and repressive society.

Josephine Gardiner is a TES news reporter

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