Voids — and Must-Avoids
Review of The Places in Between by Rory Stewart.
It’s an odd sensation in a travel book to be guided by a traveler who remains, for 300 pages, a cipher. Stewart reveals virtually nothing about himself or about his motive for undertaking his dangerous, difficult, and (evidently) unrewarding journey—on foot, no less. In fact, there’s something distinctly bratty about Stewart’s approach to the whole endeavor: he made the trip because he “wanted to,” he repeats, and one can almost hear him stamping his foot; his evident lack of any need to support himself for years at a time (he has bundles of cash at his disposal and, at the end of the journey to Afghanistan, returns to “his room” in his parents’ house in Scotland) and his conviction that he should be fed and housed by strangers all the way across Afghanistan (but not accompanied or told where to go) have a distinctly elitist and slightly juvenile ring to them, which is not completely surprising given Stewart’s parentage and social status (read his Wikipedia biography to get a hint of the manor to which he was born).
The people that Stewart meets, meanwhile, are with few exceptions entirely dreadful—dull when they are not outright dangerous, rude when they are not simply miserable, malicious and sadistic when they are not merely indifferent. Nor are the villages he visits anything to write home about, each one essentially identical to another in its revolting, raw-sewage-and-war-debris sameness. The landscape—which Stewart frequently cannot see because he is walking through blinding snowstorms—gets even shorter shrift, and Stewart only occasionally remembers to describe the quality of light at sunset or the shape of a mountain range. Indeed, one gathers that all of that was wholly secondary; his goal was the destination (Kabul), never the journey. (And that’s perhaps no surprise, given how ghastly Afghanistan appears in Stewart’s version.)
The inclusion, meanwhile, of the numerous grade-school-quality sketches that Stewart inked into his journal is a blunder that undermines what little seriousness the book can lay claim to. Stewart hints occasionally that he’s bedeviled by unhappy memories or regrets as he walks, but that’s as close as he lets anyone come to a glimpse of what’s taking place inside his head or of what his reactions are to most of the things that happen to him.
That’s a fatal flaw in a book that has so little else to offer the reader. If the Afghans are essentially unknowable and alien, if the places are unremarkable and monotonous, and if the narrator slowly disappear as he writes, the whole edifice of the project crumbles. Stewart’s only tears in the book are for an animal and never for the human misery he traipses through, as much proof as anyone should surely need that he is (or was) a callow, overprivileged youth on walkabout and that The Places In Between got published through high-society connections and not because Stewart had anything particularly meaningful to say. In a country as barren and forbidding as Afghanistan, the places in between are largely voids, and it is a void that Stewart’s book most faithfully transmits.