'Korea' holds its own on the shelf of distinguished British travel writing


April 24, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Korea," by Simon Winchester, 240 pages, Prentice Hall Press, New York, N.Y., $10.95.

Books like Simon Winchester's "Korea" belong to a lineage that goes back to the beginning of time, or at least to that time when some blue-painted Anglo-Saxon cave dweller ambled off to the next moor then came back to tell his cavemates about it.

"Korea" is one of those British travel books in which a British writer describes the peculiarities of a people who are not British.

These books are endlessly popular, especially here in the United States, which itself has been described in many, many British travel books over the last couple of centuries, often unfavorably.

The style of these books is inevitably Victorian: Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope were, among other things, great travel writers. And, of course, travel journals were written by dozens and perhaps hundreds of Victorian ladies, some of whom disguised themselves as men, often Bedouins, so they could explore Arabia Felix or or some obscure corner of the Sahara.

The Victorian era was their heyday. The British were rich then and able to burden native carriers with tons and tons of correct camping equipment so they could erect miniature Englands in the Hindu Kush and dress each evening for dinner.

The wadis and oases of the Middle East were, and are, favorite tramping grounds of these semi-commercial travelers, heaven forfend that they be called tourists. They were and are far too British to be tourists. Various hermit kingdoms -- Nepal, Bhutan, Ethiopia and Korea, the peninsular Land of the Morning Calm -- have also drawn their share of the curious English.

Evelyn Waugh was perhaps the greatest. He was the quintessential Imperial Briton, slogging through the countries of the wogs, chronicling exotica, curiosa and idiosyncrasies of the indigenes, notably Ethiopians in "Waugh in Abyssinia" and "When the Going was Good."

The tone of the classic British travel writer is ironic amusement at the folkways of peoples who do not drink warm beer in pubs or bash foreigners at soccer games. These authors are often amused at how badly people in other countries speak English, although we are rarely told how well the British traveler speaks, say, Bantu.

Winchester seems to have a smattering of Korean. But one of his first anecdotes is about a Mr. Jimmy Kim, the Korean publisher of English conversation books who pops in an airport lounge to ask if the word slipper is not usually used in the singular as in "Mrs. Park, would you please fetch me my slipper," and are not sugar and garlic plural as in "Quite a lot of garlics in that soup, Mr. Lee."

British travel books always seem to have the underlying assumption that nobody else knows very much about these countries. Even though these days you can hardly find a place CNN hasn't penetrated, or that hasn't been done up by a National Geographic Special, or for that matter by Walt Disney's heirs.

Millions of Americans, for example, have served in the Armed Forces in Korea since 1950, most for a year or more. Not, by the way, that American soldiers are notably curious travelers. Most never eat the local food, although many sleep with the local women, facts that Winchester notes with a certain prudish disapproval.

Two great British travel writers who transcended the genre, and whose reportage went beyond remarking how odd peoples are who are not British, were Graham Greene and Bruce Chatwin. And they, of course, were basically expatriates who spent their lives far removed from the rare earth of England.

Simon Winchester falls somewhere beneath Waugh and Greene and Chatwin, a step or two down the ladder of literary excellence. He's far too modern for Waugh's dyspeptic colonialism. But he's not yet as detached from the old school as Greene and Chatwin.

He's really a high-class British journalist, of the Economist magazine type, pleasantly knowledgeable, does his homework and all that.

And he's breezily cosmopolitan. He's even been to Baltimore. He becomes great friends with Mr. Sung Kwang Ok at the Puyo Youth Hostel because he can discourse on Dundalk where Mr. Sung worked on the General Motors assembly line.

Winchester is based in Hong Kong and he's written about the past of the colonial Orient in "The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire," and of the future of the Pacific Rim in "Pacific Rising: the Emergence of a New World Culture." He'd actually been to Korea many times, doing journalism.

He's an engaging and amusing writer, curious and observant, and genially discursive and digressive both in his prose and from his projected route through Korea.

Winchester planned to follow the path of a group of Dutch sailors who had washed up on the Korean island of Cheju-do after a shipwreck in 1653. One of the sailors named Hendrick Hallem described their journey to Seoul in the first Western account of this particular "Hermit Kingdom."

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