ROBERT BYRON, until recently, was merely a name, one of those esthetes who blossomed at Oxford during the bright golden springtime of the early '20s. But two years ago Paul Fussell published Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars and in it devoted an entire chapter to Byron. "What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry," he stated, "The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book." Readers everywhere rushed to acquire this masterpiece -- only to discover that it had never been published in America. So we must be grateful to Professor Fussell for this handsome paperback edition.
Does Byron's book live up to its advance notices? On the whole, yes. The Road to Oxiana (1937) appears as the haphazard journal of travels in Persia and Afghanistan during the early 1930s. In fact, the text is carefully composed, though deliberately fragmented, and in this resembles the works of Joyce and Eliot. Byron's ostensible aim in crossing Central Asia to the Oxus river was to see certain famous monuments, chiefly the Gumbadi-Kabus, a tower built as a mausoleum for an ancient king. As a result, his book proffers detailed descriptions of the excavations at Persepolis, of the interior of the Friday Mosque at Isfahan, and of various other tomb-temples. These sections constitute perhaps 25 percent of the text, and though valuable, will hardly lure the ordinary reader to the bookstore. What will are Byron's ear for the absurdities of colonial conversation and his flair for evocative description.
The book opens with the kind of brittle observations made famous by Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley."Lifar came to dinner. Bertie mentioned that all whales have syphilis." Soon, these stretch into little dialogues of non-communication, their tone that of proto-Beckett or slapstick Kafka: "Mr. Trump-of-Raphael gave a tea party . . . I sat between the English bishop and a Kajar prince. 'Why are you out here?' asked the bishop angrily. 'Travelling.' 'What in?'"
Byron is equally adept with the epigrammatic jab: "But Persians, broad as their views on religion are, drink mainly for the sin of it and care little for the taste." "Water is the main difficulty of such a journey, as sufferers from syphilis of the throat, who are numerous, are apt to choose the wells to spit in." "When evening came we put out the beds beside the lorry. Mosquitoes the size of eagles collected as though to a dinnerbell."
Of Byron's more lyrical moments, perhaps none better suggests his richness than this catalogue aria on the color green.
"We came out onto the steppe: a dazzling open sea of green. I never saw that colour before. In other greens, of emerald, jade, or malachite, the harsh deep green of the Bengal jungle, the sad cool green of Ireland, the salad green of Mediterranean vineyards, the heavy full-blown green of English summer beeches, some element of blue or yellow predominates over the others. This was the pure essence of green, indissoluble, the colour of life itself."
With lingering memories of this brilliant verdancy, Byron a few pages later depicts a more somber scene. "After Akcha, the colour of the landscape changed from lead to aluminum, pallid and deathly, as if the sun had been sucking away its gaiety for thousands and thousands of years; for this was now the plain of Balkh, and Balkh they say is the oldest city in the world."
This is a wonderful book. What a loss to literature and humanity that its author was killed during World War II at the age of 36.