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A unique moral compass

The World: Travels 1950-2000; Jan Morris; W.W. Norton & Co.: 458 pp., $27.95

November 09, 2003|Pico Iyer | Pico Iyer is the author of the novel "Abandon" and a forthcoming book of travels, "Sun After Dark."

Someone who was innocent of literary fashion and the hierarchy of genres could easily write a thesis comparing the work of V.S. Naipaul and Jan Morris. Both, after all, are near-contemporaries and fellow graduates of Oxford and the British Empire (albeit on different sides). Both are master stylists, though in major and minor key, who have returned over and over to the same places as if to worry out a conundrum within themselves and in those places. And both, at heart, have given themselves to much the same task for the last half century, following the slow unraveling of British rule and the coming to light of a new kind of order, more rootless and confused. In its British edition, the title of Morris' latest anthology of pieces written over the last 50 years, "A Writer's World," seems almost to beg comparison with Naipaul's recent collection on his travels over the same period, "The Writer and the World."

While Naipaul has been acclaimed as a master observer of societies in transit, Morris has often been relegated to the ghetto known as travel writing. In literary terms, there has been a virtual reversal of the inequity that saw Naipaul grow up on the loser's side of colonialism, anxious to prove himself at every turn and forced to fashion a new genre of his own while Morris grew up with a winner's confidence and aplomb, able to place herself in a venerable tradition. The intensity and acuity of Naipaul's gaze are widely accepted, but Morris is no less shrewd or attentive. The principal difference between them is that Naipaul carries his anxieties everywhere he goes, whereas Morris rolls seamlessly through even the most dramatic journey a human can undertake. (Foreign correspondent extraordinaire James Morris became Jan Morris following a 1972 sex-change operation.)

One of the blessings of the new anthology -- whose U.S. title is "The World: Travels 1950-2000" and takes us chronologically through Morris' career and across the world -- is that it reminds those who had forgotten that Morris was a seasoned international reporter, for the Times of London and the Manchester Guardian, long before she became a master impressionist in words. She covered the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, she talked to Ernesto "Che" Guevara while he was president of Cuba's National Bank, she covered revolutions in Africa, South America and the Middle East, almost like a melodious version of the great Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski. (Naipaul, by comparison, was more apt to visit places before the revolution, or after.) And like Naipaul, finally, Morris is so steeped in the past that she's been able to read the future. Describing Baghdad after a coup in 1958, she writes in terms that could be taken from today's newspapers. Visiting Cuba just after Fidel Castro's takeover, she finds a "sugar and bikini state" that applies brilliantly to the island 44 years on.

If it has sometimes been possible to underestimate her, that may be in part because she has the good journalist's ability to carry the reader along for the ride without letting on how much information is being dispensed. Her famously mellifluous sentences roll on and on, impeccably, through passages that have no precedent or parallel. (No one can better describe the movements of a street, the smells of a marketplace, the skipping of a heart.) Only on careful rereading do you realize that she was telling us that America had more federally licensed gun stores than gas stations long before we thought in such terms. Her 1983 rendering of a Sydney school's motto "I hear, I see, I learn" in Latin ("Audio, Video, Disco") is not just an ornamental detail. Morris' years as a journalist gave her a care for accuracy and for making every sentence count, as her years as a British soldier in Palestine seem to have given her a resilience and stoicism that help her appear to make light work of everything. One has to look closely to realize that she's driving through war-stricken Bosnia in the dark, in one passage here, while in her 70s.

This classic, some would say imperial, reticence has given her a devil-may-care air in places where Naipaul has made heavy weather of his distress. And, as befits their opposite positions on the colonizing spectrum, perhaps, the exiled Naipaul has always emphasized how much work he has put into his sentences and how devotedly he has served his Muse, whereas Welsh-born Morris almost seems to stress the opposite. The sense of fun she derives from places, the amusement and delight she conveys, make it easy to overlook how hard she is traveling and working. While Naipaul's lean and hungry style advertises its own abstemious sobriety, Morris is not shy of starting a sentence with "O" and ending it with an exclamation point.

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