Friday, February 01, 2008

The Road to Oxiana (is paved with Byron's discarded bottles)

Reading Robert Byron's "The Road to Oxiana" at the moment. Because it's a "classic" there is an onus on one to join in the general approval and wax lyrical about it. I can't quite manage this but still found it a diverting read. He's refreshingly irreverent and misanthropic which I do like and has a lively turn of phrase: "a palsied dotard", "hairy dwarves smelling of garlic" etc. There is plenty of evidence of the the casual racism and anti-semitism that characterises English gentlemen of that era, and also the presumption of service. There are also some very prescient comments on the fledgling state of Israel - and on the differing nature of Arab and Jew - Arabs are lazy, Jews hard-working and acquisitive. And some wonderful descriptive passages, often about the dress of the natives. Check this one out: "Now and then a calico bee-hive with a window at the top flits across the scene. This is a woman."

The descriptions of the logistics of his journeys and the hospitality he enjoys are always interesting in their period detail. And you can't but be impressed by the round the clock drinking he seems to do - on one occasion he becomes agitated by the discovery that there is no alcohol available in the village in which he beds down. On another he rails against the mediocre hock he encounters.

However if you are not interested in tracing the origins of Western architecture and the early influence of Islamic architecture then there are more than occasional lacunae. In fact he does bang on relentlessly and in esoteric detail about all the architectural wonders he encounters. What on earth are squinches? Unless you are an architectural buff you will be skipping over a lot of this book. He's much better on the characters and situations he encounters.

He is also very dogmatic about his architectural tastes and saves a lot of his venom for theatrical swipes at such generally accepted masterpieces as the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra. He also has a go at the giant Buddhas of Bamian destroyed by the Taliban a few years ago: "It is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous, flaccid bulk, that sickens."