Observer Review: Solomon Time And Ciao Asmara Essay, Research Paper
Stalking sharks or mourning camels?Solomon TimeWill RandallAbacus ?7.99, pp285Ciao AsmaraJustin HillLittle, Brown ?10.99, pp217Swimming, sunbathing, drinks: this was the Falklands war for my friend Brian who was hundreds of miles away from the fighting on a lonely rock. Brian’s war consisted of taking delivery of film from the distant front once a week or so and leisurely sending it to broadcasters in Britain. When he returned to a familiar street, tanned and relaxed, he was astonished to see yellow ribbons around every bough, and a banner spanning the road which read, ‘Welcome Home, Brian!’.In every triumphant retelling of his story, Brian resisted pressure to add that he had been worshipped as a god by the islanders and that his likeness, worked in coconut and coral, could still be found in their shrines.According to Solomon Time, a peppery old salt, not unlike Brian, known as the Commander, is venerated as the father of Mendali, a village in one of the smallest of the Solomon Islands. The Commander is also the deus ex machina of Will Randall’s immensely likeable travel book. Once encountered by the author on the rugger touchline, the Commander leaves Mendali some money in his will. Randall, otherwise set for a future as a day-dreaming schoolmaster, agrees to go to the South Pacific to disburse the legacy.Sharks stalk his flimsy fishing vessel, he is swept overboard and marooned on an even smaller island; for a moment, it seems as if he witnesses headhunters doing their worst, fulfilling his fears about the trip. Randall has a deceptively guileless style. This allows him to negotiate the twin hazards which face the travel writer: the boiling feeding frenzy of bravado and the desolate reef of faux naivety.On second thoughts, travel writing seems an inadequate, and inaccurate, description of what Randall and Justin Hill have achieved. It’s more like live-in writing, since each man settled in the community he portrays, a tougher undertaking than the dispatch of an itinerant scribbler. Although Hill’s passport, like Randall’s, identified him as a teacher, he was in effect writer-in-residence in a newly independent Eritrea. The country had been exploited by the rulers of neighbouring Ethiopia, including Haile Selassie and Mengistu. It was a long way from Randall’s happy isle.At first sight, Hill and his publishers have their work cut out with Ciao Asmara. Travel literature is the exception to the iron rule of bulletins from abroad. This bad news doesn’t sell. Driving over lemons appeals to bookshops, and perhaps readers, in a way that driving over land mines apparently fails to do. But the gravity of Hill’s account is relieved by attention-grabbing imagery. When Eritrea was still under Mengistu’s bespoke heel, his Ministers took a trip through a region stricken by famine where ‘their limousine was scratched by a thicket of imploring hands’. Writing about the cries of camels, Hill says that ‘their deep mourning groans were like the sound of rocks splitting in the heat’.The good news for Hill’s stylish brand of bad news is that bookshops have given pride of place recently to a collection on Africa by one of the greatest living travel writers, Ryszard Kapuscinski, who unforgettably recorded the demise of Haile Selassie; earlier, Selassie’s coronation was reported by Evelyn Waugh. Hill’s book is the next best thing written about this benighted and beguiling place.