Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest book is “Selling Ronald Reagan: The Emergence of a President.”
‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” So said Augustine of Hippo, back when travel was much more difficult than it is today. The statement is indisputable. Ignorance of the world is dangerous, as the nightly news often demonstrates. Like it or not, people in other countries do not behave like us — that’s why they’re called foreigners. “Travel,” writes Andrew Solomon, “is a set of corrective lenses that helps focus the planet’s blurred reality.”
At an early age, Solomon decided to read that book of the world from cover to cover. To date, he’s visited 83 of the 196 recognized countries on this planet. “Far & Away” is a collection of his travel pieces published over the years in a wide variety of journals. That variety leads to an inconsistency of tone: Some are lighthearted, others somber. The short ones should be longer, the longer ones shorter. But does this matter? Probably not. This is an untidy book, but a great one.
In truth, this is not really travel writing in the recognized form of the genre. The reader who expects a collection of quirky anecdotes about fascinating places will be disappointed. “Far & Away” is not just a voyage around the world; it’s also a voyage around Andrew Solomon.
One chapter title encapsulates the man: “Gay, Jewish, Mentally Ill, and a Sponsor of Gypsies in Romania.” Let’s deconstruct that. First, the Jew. That’s the least prominent characteristic, which is surprising given where Solomon has traveled. Yet his Jewishness explains in part why he travels. When he was 7, he found out about the Holocaust. “Why didn’t those Jews just leave when things got bad?” he asked. “They had nowhere to go,” his father explained. Young Andrew “decided that I would always have somewhere to go.” He chose to become a citizen of the world rather than a prisoner of one nation.
Now, the gay bit. Solomon is very upfront about his sexuality. He openly celebrates the tolerance toward gays that has grown in his lifetime. Yet his wanderlust and his homosexuality often result in peculiar predicaments. Some are delightful, such as when a shepherd passes his hotel in Ulaanbaatar. “You are gayboy? I am gayboy too. . . . Maybe I leave sheep in hotel parking lot and come inside with you?” Others are tragic. Solomon regularly travels to countries where homosexuality is a crime, even a capital one. He has become, as a result of his encounters, a mouthpiece for stories of terrible persecution. These pepper the book.
Now the mental illness. “I’m not depressed now — but I was depressed for a long time,” Solomon writes. Chronic depression fueled a need to understand his illness, which in turn inspired further voyages. He traveled to Rwanda and Cambodia to discover how human beings manage to cope in the wake of genocide. “I expected to be humbled by the pain of others, and I was humbled down to the ground.” He went to Greenland to understand why the people there are so miserable. Suicide is the leading cause of mortality. Solomon assumed that the oppressive darkness was at fault but then decided that cold was the culprit. People huddle together to keep warm; they sleep on top of one another. Forced intimacy makes them seek privacy within themselves. This is the legacy of the igloo — “When you got angry or upset, you would just turn your head and watch the walls melt.” A society evolved with a taboo against talking about oneself. (This is not a problem Solomon shares.)
Finally: “sponsor of gypsies in Romania.” The operative word is not “Romania” nor “gypsies,” but “sponsor” — Solomon’s big-hearted desire to help. Long ago, he set out to witness the change he wanted to see in the world. He sought singlehandedly to undermine insularity. “The central proposition of this book is that circling the wagons is not only impossible in a globalized world, but finally perilous.” This insistence that he could nurture a better world through travel has often landed him in danger. During the coup in 1991, he built barricades in Moscow. “I am petrified; facing down tanks has not previously been a part of my job description. But I am also exhilarated by the intense purposefulness of our stance.”
That intense purposefulness is what makes this book extraordinary. Travel is usually self-serving. Solomon’s is seldom that. Hope fuels his voyages. He went to Afghanistan in 2002 to witness an awakening after the defeat of the Taliban. “I [was] . . . ready for hardship, and I did see horrible things. But I also felt a warmth . . . that lay not only in the reform of government but also in the return to small satisfactions . . . generously shared.” That chapter, however, ends with a tragic postscript. Solomon explains how the friends he met are mostly dead, the optimism he felt cruelly crushed. “You were there in those beautiful days — in the time of hope,” a friend reflected. “All of that is gone now.” That is the pattern of this book: Hope blooms like crocuses in spring and is then trampled underfoot.
Yet still he searches for reasons to believe. “A crushed hope is suffused with nobility that mere hopelessness can never know.” This is a very noble book. It’s also a very depressing one.
By Andrew Solomon
Scribner. 578 pp. $30