A catalog of countries' quirks lacks real curiosity about them

July 18, 1993|By Michael Anft

FALLING OFF THE MAP:

SOME LONELY PLACES

OF THE WORLD

Pico Iyer

Knopf

190 pages,$20

In Paraguay, Pico Iyer relates, "Everything could be had for a hTC price," and "the latest boom market was in babies." Icelanders, meanwhile, "believe that rolling naked in the dew will cure you of nineteen separate ailments." And in Vietnam, "It's 93 degrees outside, it's April 8th and you're listening to a Vietnamese cover version of 'Jingle Bells' " while people drink "coffee made from beans vomited up by a weasel."

In all their wonkiness, quirkiness -- even madness -- these outposts of the weird and shameless are the world's orphans, or "Lonely Places." North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Bhutan and Australia (Australia?), he writes, dance "to the beat of a different satellite drummer."

They certainly are places where you wouldn't expect to find a marketable travel writer, which Mr. Iyer certainly is. ("Lonely Places" is, in fact, a collection of magazine pieces.) But the author has stumbled upon a couple of intriguing questions: Why is it that certain countries are out of step, willfully or not, with the rest of the world? And is their isolation a result of some wrinkle in the national character, or does the physical, otherworldly

solitude -- the "loneliness" -- determine that character?

Mr. Iyer bombards us with telling details: "Yuri Gagarin had circumnavigated the globe before Bhutan had installed its first road"; "The more modern the buildings in Korea, the more the country felt outdated"; "Argentina and Brazil are as far apart as three-piece suit and one-piece thong. . . The Brazilians undress as routinely as the Argentines dress up." And he soothes us with near-seamless prose, and observes clearly and without undue cynicism. But he never bothers to answer or analyze those questions.

Mr. Iyer makes the most of store signs, moving traffic, lists and the strangeness of lonely-place accommodations, sometimes to the point of distraction. (Do we really need to hear the names of all the shops or wares named after crocodiles in Australia?) He exploits with aplomb the perfectly crystallized quote (especially if it's culled from the works of other writers or plucked from the mouth of a fellow traveler) and the metaphor of the street ("in Saigon, it is always 9:30 at night in some flashy, shady dive, and a chanteuse in a sequined microskirt is belting out 'I'm on top of the world, looking down on creation' ").

He does not, though, make use of a critical element in all good travel writing: natives. In fact, in at least two cases we can see the hollowness of Mr. Iyer's unadventurous method, even through the facileness of his prose. He haggles with a hotel attendant. He checks out his room, taking notes. He goes outside to the town center to watch the people mill about. He records store names. He returns to the hotel and looks up his host country's history.

But the difference between a traveler and a tourist is genuine curiosity. There's an inner drive that impels the jet-lagged, discomfited experience seeker to look beyond the sights and signs of a new place in order to answer fundamental and subtle questions about it -- and occasionally himself.

It holds true that the best travel writers (Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux) have applied this tough standard to their craft. It is also obvious that Mr. Iyer, fine stylist that he is, has not.

Mr. Anft is a writer living in Baltimore.

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