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Travel Memoirs

Some very personal journeys, from the Alps to Vietnam.

By Wayne Hoffman
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW09

Feeling Sheepish

Hans Breuer, Austria's last wandering shepherd, seems like a terrific character for a novel. He's got comic potential: Picture this middle-aged man in a wide-brimmed hat, singing folksongs while he ushers his flock through Alpine villages past bemused locals. He's got a serious side, too: In addition to being something of a relic by profession, Breuer is conspicuous as a Jew in a country that has yet to come to terms with its Nazi past.

But Breuer is not fictional. He is the real, and sometimes surreal, focus of freelance writer Sam Apple's Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd (Ballantine, $23.95). Breuer aims to keep alive both Austrian tradition (as a wandering shepherd) and Jewish tradition (as a Yiddish folksinger); the lullabies he croons to his sheep have not often been heard in the decades since Austria's Jews were decimated during the Holocaust.

Schlepping Through the Alps is an inspired mix of reportage and travelogue, history and biography. Apple has a knack for deadpan silliness ("Still, intrigued as I was by the sheep, I can't say I found them sexually exciting") but also shows respect for serious subjects, particularly whether Austria has finally faced its anti-Semitic past -- and present. "In [Breuer's] shepherding," Apple notes, "I saw the rejection of modern society in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In his Yiddish songs I inevitably listened for the millions of missing Yiddish voices that should have been singing along."

In analyzing the shepherd, Apple reveals himself as a neurotic, quirky character in his own right. His woolly adventures and sexual exploits are blended with his insights into Austrian culture and history, which he discovers by interviewing everyone from a seductive anti-racism activist to the general secretary of the rightist Freedom Party formerly led by Joerg Haider. The result is the liveliest, most unusual travel tale in recent memory.

The Wandering Self

Finding ways to make travel writing fresh isn't easy, as novelist and University of Michigan writing professor Nicholas Delbanco notes in Anywhere Out of the World: Essays on Travel, Writing, Death (Columbia Univ., $27.50). Between thoughtful essays about literary craft, the author squeezes in some well-honed travel tales of his own, from Italy to Las Vegas. He once wanted to see the whole world: "Displacement seemed almost an end in itself, and a much-stamped passport somehow a form of achievement." But this sentiment lessened over time because much of the world has already been explored and described, leaving fewer novel places worthy of dispatches.

But it's possible to find someplace new to most readers; Delbanco's "Letter from Namibia" is as compelling and original a piece of travel writing as one is likely to find, paying meticulous attention to both physical surroundings and human companions. Still, he notes that for many contemporary authors in the field, "an inward-bound journey" is the most likely route for finding new material, creating stories where "the writer reports on distance traversed by the wandering self."

In Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain (Random House, $24.95), Christopher Merrill tries exactly this kind of excursion in a series of soul-searching visits to the Mount Athos peninsula in northern Greece, home to several Eastern Orthodox monasteries. A poet, journalist and director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill demonstrates his erudition by liberally citing other sources: writers from Yeats to Dostoyevsky, musicians from Haydn to John Cage, as well as historians, theologians and scripture itself. But where, amid the citations and commentary, is Merrill?

The most important element of Merrill's journey is internal, so readers need to get inside his head and his heart. Unfortunately, he keeps his audience at arm's length. Merrill explains cursorily from the outset that he is suffering spiritually due to problems in his marriage and psychological shellshock from reporting on the Balkan wars. Yet his self-reflection rarely results in self-disclosure; he never fully elaborates on his internal crises, and without understanding the emotional wounds he carries at the beginning, it's hard to grasp the emotional healing he finds in the monasteries. Merrill eventually reaches "a conversion, or a deepening sense of faith" and feels that his "soul is waking from forty years of sleep." But without more insight into the opaque narrator, the reader cannot truly appreciate the transformation.

In Country

Larry Heinemann, by contrast, makes no effort to hide himself in prose. In Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam (Doubleday, $22.95), the Vietnam veteran goes back to the war zone in which he fought. It is not the first time he has written about the country -- he penned two novels about the war -- but here he does so without the personal protection of fiction. "My war-year was like a nail in my head, like a corpse in my house, and I wanted it out," he writes, recalling his tour of duty with the 25th Infantry Division near the Cu Chi tunnels northwest of Saigon. On a series of visits over the past 15 years, Heinemann tried to come to terms with Vietnam absent any sentimentality, jingoism or futile regret. Black Virgin Mountain isn't about "healing" or "reconciliation," he explains, but about a former soldier trying to make sense of it all.

Heinemann narrates his memoir with swagger; opinionated and brash, he's like a drunken stranger at a bar who has a good story to share but isn't above punching anyone who looks at him cockeyed. He wears his politics on his sleeve -- witness his contempt for the former Marine and secretary of the Navy James Webb, whom he encountered on a return visit, and his more mixed feelings toward Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, a one-time compatriot of Ho Chi Minh whom he also met. But his politics aren't dogmatic, aching for one side to blame or another to praise. They are more personal: "I was not simply a witness, but an integral, even dedicated, party to a very wrong thing." The scars of his military service in the 1960s remain, but as an adult he has gained new understanding and an unromantic respect for what happened decades ago.

Sensory details bring Heinemann's trips to life. In Hanoi, he describes working stiffs eating spicy noodle soup at a sidewalk pho stand and freelance bicycle repairmen waiting on street corners for a few minutes of work. When he recounts a trek on the Vietnam Railway, readers can almost taste the local whiskey he shares with the conductor and smell the River of Perfume where he takes a dip. And when he finally explores the tunnels of Cu Chi -- a network that provided shelter for Viet Cong guerrillas and today stands as a Vietnamese tourist site -- he brings the reader along: "You are middle-aged, fat, and out of shape. You are quickly pouring sweat, quickly claustrophobic, and ready to leave; now."

No matter how much physical description he adds, however, it is his personal experience that drives his narrative. What Heinemann sees, tastes, smells and hears in Vietnam makes Black Virgin Mountain entertaining; what he feels there makes it meaningful. •

Wayne Hoffman, managing editor of the Forward, has also written for Fodor's Travel Publications.

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