East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Road to Oxiana


oxianaToday (well, ok, yesterday) the postman delivered a second-hand copy of Robert Byron‘s The Road to Oxiana, the 1980s Picador paperback edition, the one with the Bruce Chatwin intro.
I paid it about one euro.
It goes to replace my old Picador Edition, bought in a fancy Turin bookstore in the late 80s, and later… ehm, misplaced, by a friend who borrowed it.
It also replaces my rather expensive Italian translation, Adelphi edition, which a former girlfriend decided to keep when we parted company (together with a lot of other stuff, now that I think about it).
And the used Oxiana book goes to re-form the pair with Byron’s other book – First Russia, Then Tibet – the Penguin books edition which I bought all those years ago together with the misplaced book.

russiatibetThe Road to Oxiana is a very simple book, structurally.
It’s a diary, charting the travel Robert Byron undertook in 1933-34, starting in Venice, going all the way to Afghanistan, then back to England by way of India.
Nothing too sophisticated, from that point of view.
First Russia, Then Tibet, now that’s more traditional in its approach – more like a “serious book”, well planned and executed, and less like a notebook filled with notes and stuff.

On the other hand, The Road to Oxiana is the ultimate diary – it shows all a good writer (and Byron was a great writer) can do with the diary format.
Basically working by progressive accumulation of information.
Plain writing, and leaving it at that.

Let’s play a game and open it ata random page…

Shir Ahmad, the Afghan Ambassador, looks like a tiger dressed as a Jew. I said: “If Your Excellency gives me permission, I am hoping to visit Afghanistan.”
“Hoping to visit Afghanistan? (Roaring) OF COURSE you will visit Afghanistan!”
According to him, there really is a road from Herat to Mazar-i-Sherif.

There’s maps, in this book.
There’s travel observations, there’s snippets of dialogue.
There’s a great cast of characters (often rendered with two just lines – as per example above).
There’s an incredible list of the stuff found in a hotel somewhere beyond Istambul.
There’s historical and geographical information, there’s even literary criticism.
I cannot be sure there’s not even some writing advice, hidden somewhere between these covers.

Here, I’ll say it – this book is the sort of thing I imagine a good blog could be.
Should be, really.
Flexible, fun, opinionated.
Covering all the possible angles about a certain theme, or idea or destination.
Chatty, but well written.

Then, ok, the blogger should be as good a writer as Robert Byron was – but what the heck, there’s no reason why one should not try.
Practice makes perfect, right?

Now that I have it back on my shelf, I’ll read it again, of course.
And then I’ll keep it close at hand.
And I will not lend it anymore.
Future girlfriends will have to have their own copy already when we’ll meet.


Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “The Road to Oxiana

  1. The tradition of travel books, more than often a good excuse to write about everything else, is to be renewed, event in this Google Maps-era. It’s OK, there are no grey areas on the maps anymore (well, almost…) and travels are far most less expensive than before (if you’re willing to travel and not to transit froma seven star hotel to another). Every journey, both physical and virtual, starts inside the mind of the traveler and a travel book should give at least a glimpse of that mind.


  2. Travel books are a form of narrative that’s been with us for millennia – before there were travel guides, there were travellers’ tales.
    We are a species of travellers.


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