|Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews|
Picador (Jan. 2004) 216 pages
ISBN: 0 330 41209 4
Norman Lewis's travel writing is the good old-fashioned kind. No sensationalism. No smart "Look how weird these foreigners are!" No tricky merging of fact and fiction: just a vivid, straightforward, sometimes wry expression of his fascination with the world and its people.
In 1937, Lewis was approached by Roy Stevens of the British Colonial Office with the suggestion that they might go to the Yemen together. The Yemen, then, was rarely visited by Westerners, mainly, it seems, because the locals had a nasty habit of chopping off the hands of anyone they suspected of spying on them. Given this, Stevens' plan for Lewis to photograph them might have seemed unduly dangerous, but Lewis was not deterred. Even the fact that he was given no real explanation of the purpose of the expedition, other than being told it was an opportunity for him to gather information and pictures for a future book, did not put him off, although others might have thought such activity sounded very much like spying.
So, Lewis went to the Yemen. And, after a brief, frustrating but interesting time spent in Aden waiting for a travel permit, he and Stevens and another rather shady writer called Ladislas Farago, set out by dhow for Hodeidah. The first twelve chapters of this book are an account of his experiences.
Lewis is always a superb story-teller, and he had some unusual stories to tell. In Aden, even before his journey had really begun, he met and photographed the celebrated outlaw, El Hadrami (celebrated, at that time, for having just beheaded four of the King's guards who had been sent to arrest him); and at the bar of his hotel, he met Joseph, self-styled (on his visiting card) "Senior Officer's Pimp." And these first novel experiences were just a taste of things to come. His journey was eventful and uneventful by turns until, after being stranded for several days on the tiny island of Kamaran and then negotiating a passage aboard a small cargo ship, Lewis and the others finally arrived in Hodeidah to be greeted by a ceremonial execution designed to deter the "foreigners aboard the ships offshore" from spying.
This account, which makes the title piece in the book, is dated 2001, as if Lewis wrote it quite recently as a memoir. The final piece in the book is similarly dated, although the events it describes took place in 1954. Other pieces are dated from 1970 to 1983, so none of this reportage is up-to-date. The book is none the worse for that, but I would have liked some more recent accounts of the countries and cultures Lewis documented, so that I could see just how unusual or commonplace his experiences were, and, also, how things might have changed since he experienced them.
This was particularly true of the South American countries which are the subject of several very disturbing pieces in this book. The first piece is dated 1970 and it, like several others included here, documents the terrible influence of some powerful Christian missionary groups on the lives of the forest Indian peoples in those countries. It records, too, the cynicism and corruption of many of those in positions of power, who might have prevented the genocide which was taking place. He also exposed the general lack of concern of relevant Governments about the situation, in spite of the continuing protests by anthropologists, the International League for the Rights of Man, the various members of the UN and the US Senate. What has happened to these people since 1983, when the last of these pieces was written? Did anything change?
My other gripe about this book is that Lewis writes frequently about the photographs he took, like the one of the scimitar-swinging, kilt-wearing El Hadrami, but none of them are included. With such tempting descriptions of the characters Lewis photographed, it is frustrating that we see none of the resulting shots.
However, neither of my complaints has anything to do with the quality of Lewis's writing. He has long been one of the best exponents of travel writing, and those who already know his work will welcome this small addition to his opus. Others are likely to find that this small sample will whet their appetites for more.