Travel writing: exploring inner, outer landscapes

August 25, 1991|By Abby Karp | Abby Karp,Ms. Karp is an assistant features editor at The Sun.



Mary Morris.


259 pages. $19.50.




J. D. Brown.


246 pages. $18.95. Scenery can be pretty nice but the truth about traveling -- as opposed to vacationing -- is that you go away in large part to explore your own inner geography. The best travel writing not only shows us foreign lands in vivid detail, but filters those observations through the author's changing consciousness.

This is a tall order, requiring a writer adept at physical description and personal revelation. Mary Morris manages both in "Wall to Wall," the story of her journey from China's Great Wall to the Berlin Wall, and does so with a candor that must be described as courageous.

J. D. Brown's "Digging to China" is a less successful excavation, largely because the author describes himself only through his abstract revelations about life's meaning. As I read, I kept wondering: Who is this J. D. Brown? And what's he doing in China, anyway?

No such questions pester the reader of Ms. Morris' books, neither the current one nor her earlier narrative, "Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone." She explains this latest trip, taken in 1986 when she was 39, with a characteristically gripping image:

"Ever since my grandmother told me about being buried alive, I have wanted to travel to the place where the little graves were . . ."

Her grandmother escaped to America from the Ukraine at 12, running from Cossacks and pogroms, and years later told her granddaughter of hiding buried in the ground, only a straw to breathe through, until the threat passed.

Ms. Morris' journey to see her grandmother's village begins in Beijing, as she pleads for a visa at the Mongolian Embassy so she can ride the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow.

But it's not the difficulty of getting the passport stamp that derails her; it's the nuclear accident at Chernobyl 10 days before she was to leave, and the ensuing revelation that she's pregnant.

The latter is the crux of the writer's other, more personal journey. As she stares out train windows at the changing scenery, she also is winding her way through thoughts of a three-year relationship with a man back home who would be her lover but not her life partner.

Despite the failure of the trip's mission -- she winds up substituting a train ride to Berlin for a visit to her grandmother's village -- she uses the time well as an author. Although not much happens on a long train trip, Ms. Morris makes most of it interesting with well-written description; bits of history (usually interesting, occasionally skimmable); details of the peculiarities of life on the road; and accounts of the tiny

interactions that, limited as they may be because of language barriers, convince a traveler that she's learned about something other than herself.

Like Ms. Morris, J. D. Brown wandered around the Communist world at a time of interesting changes. In 1984, he found himself in Xi'an, a backwater Chinese town, teaching English to medical students.

If he understands why he ended up there, he doesn't share that with the viewer. Instead, Mr. Brown challenges us to know him solely through his observations, analyses and adventures during his stay (and two brief returns later that decade). This stripped-down approach works at times, but ultimately causes the narrative's disintegration into a series of episodes as Mr. Brown learns the ways of China.

He's quite funny -- and, quite admirably, never condescending -- on the subject of China's idiosyncrasies, but his historical ramblings become tedious.

The heart of the book, one finally concludes, lies in his pronouncements on the dynamics of inner and outer exploration.

Reflecting on his attempt to compose a lucid image of Xi'an, he writes, "I've failed, obviously, in this act of pathetic self-importance; in its stead, I've learned to be insignificant."

While that's fine for Mr. Brown's karma, this reader would appreciate a consciousness that offers more than knowledge of its own insignificance.

Ms. Karp is an assistant features editor at The Sun. She will embark on a round-the-world trip next month.

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