The Road to Oxiana

The Road to Oxiana

The Road to Oxiana

The Road to Oxiana

Synopsis

In 1933 the delightfully eccentric Robert Byron set out on a journey through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran to Oxiana -the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya which forms part of the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. His arrival at his destination, the legendary tower of Qabus, although a wonder in itself, it not nearly so amazing as the thoroughly captivating, at times zany, record of his adventures.
In addition to its entertainment value,The Road to Oxianaalso serves as a rare account of the architectural treasures of a region now inaccessible to most Western travellers. When Paul Fussell "rediscovered"The Road to Oxianain his recent bookAbroad, he whetted the appetite of a whole new generation of readers. In his new introduction, written especially for this volume, Fussell writes: "Reading the book is like stumbling into a modern museum of literary kinds presided over by a benign if eccentric curator. Here armchair travellers will find newspaper clippings, public signs and notices, official forms, letters, diary entries, essays on current politics, lyric passages, historical and archaeological dissertations, brief travel narratives (usually of comic-awful delays and disasters), and--the triumph of the book--at least twenty superb comic dialogues, some of them virtually playlets, complete with stage directions and musical scoring."

Excerpt

In the interval between the two World Wars a generation of bright young travelers set off from the British Isles to register anew, with all the cockiness of youth, the oddity and exoticism of the world outside. "These were the years," says Evelyn Waugh, "when Mr. Peter Fleming went to the Gobi Desert, Mr. Graham Greene to the Liberian hinterland, Robert Byron . . . to the ruins of Persia." It was not just a movement. It was a literary movement, and good books resulted, like Fleming's News from Tartary, Greene's Journey without Maps, and Waugh's own Ninety-Two Days: The Account of a Tropical Journey through British Guiana and Part of Brazil. One of the best of these books is this one by Robert Byron, first published in 1937. Its wit and committed intelligence, registering themselves in situations both delightful and significant, may invite us to re-define the genre "travel book," to recognize that here is a literary kind which, although presumably "nonfiction," provides opportunities for the richest kind of imaginative genius to exercise itself.

Robert Byron was born in 1905 into a substantial Wiltshire family distantly related to Lord Byron. The family house in Savernake Forest, near Marlborough, struck visitors like Waugh as a theater of comic Victorian eccentricity ("Rutting stags in the forest outside. Inside, long, uncarpeted, unlit passages. Furniture unrelieved 1840"). Until the Great Depression, when the family's fortune diminished dramatically, Robert and his two sisters lived comfortably. Robert was sent to Eton and then to Merton College, Oxford, whence he issued in 1926, to his beloved mother's dismay, with a mere Third Class degree in History.

His combative character seems to have become fixed in boyhood, and boy or man he looked remarkably the same -- eyes (and often mouth as well) wide open in scandalized disbelief or outrage; long nose; straw-colored hair; a tendency to plumpness. As a boy at Eton he was conspicuous for outbursts of moral and artistic indignation, as well as . . .

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