"It would be going too far to say that I felt myself to be an ancient Egyptian. But I felt a connection, an unusual sympathy," writes Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding, whose lifelong fascination with Egypt tempted him in 1983 to hire a small motor yacht and crew to sail up the Nile River.
For a man of 72, and his wife, it was no small adventure, especially because the motor and other equipment on their rickety vessel proved unreliable. Their journey was interrupted frequently for emergency repairs. In a land that in many ways still is primitive, where one doesn't speak the language, mechanical breakdowns can be moments of high drama.
Golding, an English writer best known for his novel "Lord of the Flies," adopted a necessarily slow pace as he explored the river and the villages on its banks from Cairo to Luxor and back again. But, as he explains, his account is "about me as much as about Egypt."
As a reader, you must recognize his intent or you may feel cheated by what you find in "An Egyptian Journal." I picked up the book eagerly. Here was a gifted writer with a personal enthusiasm for everything Egyptian. I hoped he would bring coherence to a land both ancient and modern. Sadly, there is not much to be learned about Egypt from it.
Though this disappointment lingered, I began to enjoy the book for what it is: a simple, sometimes amusing tale of one man's unusual journey and how it changes him. Golding embarks as a mildly grumpy man in a hurry, obsessed with a timetable schedule. Before the trip is done he accepts, reluctantly, the philosophy of the Nile, as revealed by a member of his five-man crew:
"He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience."
What we learn of Golding is that he really is a rather good-humored traveler in the face of adversities, large and small. Bouncing in a wagon over a deeply rutted road on a shore excursion, he is seated between two Egyptian students determined to quiz the Nobel laureate:
"Our bodies were bounced six inches off the wooden seats at each explosion and through it all the questioning went on. Airborne, I heard the shouted question, 'What is your opinion of Virginia Woolf?' It was too much. I burst into rude but unstoppable giggles, tried to explain but gave up as we continued on our Brownian way."
We also watch Golding, the writer in quest of a book, thrash about trying to find a focus for it. He fully realizes something important is expected of him -- the responsibilities of a Nobel are heavy -- but he admits on a half-dozen occasions that he's stumped. You can almost hear the sigh of exasperation:
"I sat on my bunk, therefore, and tried to bring some order into this at least partly crazy experience. How the devil could I get a book out of it?" When he jotted that in his journal, he was already on the return trip downriver to Cairo.
Part of his problem, I suspect, is that his journey was too short, only three or four weeks, it seems. It's not much time to absorb a culture centuries old. And by choosing to travel by boat, he isolated himself from much of the life of the countryside. Only well into his journey does he make earnest attempts to get off the boat and meet some Egyptians.
Golding never does come to grips with Egypt, and in that his book must be judged a failure. He seems to recognize this himself. But by the time you have finished his tale (and he and his wife are safely back ashore, checked into a modern hotel offering the proper shower they crave) you have come to like the guy, and so you don't really mind.
For a lesson in travel writing, Golding would be wise to read one of the current masters at it, American novelist Paul Theroux. Theroux is as informative as he is entertaining in his short introduction to this picture-book look at the colorful railways of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Theroux won fame as a travel writer with "The Great Railway Bazaar," a bestselling account of his four-month trip across Europe and Asia by train. In "The Imperial Way," he retraces part of that journey, this time illustrated with Steve McCurry's photographs.
Theroux again plunges into the exotic hubbub of the subcontinent, always with a good ear for the interesting stories told by fellow passengers aboard the Khyber Mail, the Simla Mail or the Two-Down to Delhi and other romantic-sounding trains. The accompanying photos -- of the people, the landscape and the trains -- are lovely, adding poignancy to the text.