Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

I spotted this in a secondhand bookshop, and was inspired to give it a try because a) Nancy Mitford was in love with Robert Byron, and I thought there was a good chance that it might be amusing; and b) because Bruce Chatwin was inspired by Byron's writing. This book describes, in diary form, a haphazard journey through and around Persia and into Afghanistan. Byron and his travelling companion, Christopher Sykes, struggle against authoritarian bureacracy in imperial Persia, and no less effective state control in Afghanistan; permits are capriciously issued and withdrawn, they acquire endless state escorts who attempt to prevent them drawing, taking photographs, or indeed noticing anything that might lead to criticism of the Shah, Islam, the government. Byron is a wily traveller, however, and knows both when to accept these constraints and how to outwit them. His encounter with Herzfeld at Persepolis, during which he flouts, flagrantly, the prohibition on photography there, is typical of one of his ways of dealing with authority: ignore it and do whatever you want.

Byron is immensely knowledgable about Islamic architecture, and much of the text is given over to mouthwatering descriptions of mosques and palaces, their tiles, domes, minarets and squinches. Interestingly, he visits the massive statues of Buddha since destroyed by the Taliban; he doesn't care for them, or for Buddhist art in general. Added to the varied, beautiful but often harsh landscapes he describes, this makes the book something of a feast for the inner eye. This is contrasted with the comic encounters with minor potentates, ambassadors, the military and servants. Byron's attitudes to the locals are fairly typical of the time, and can be uncomfortable for the modern reader, but his genuine respect for some, especially their guide and chauffeur Seyid Jemal, tempers this a little. Compared to Chatwin, this is a traveller less anxious to be liked, more purposeful and less haphazard, but his abilities to take pleasure where it may be found certainly seem to have been taken as a model.

1 comment:

  1. I love this book! When I read it I actually started reading the first chapter again, even though I hadn't finsihed the last one yet. I just didn't want it to end...