Chronicles of the lost guide
In talented hands, a country seen through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker can be a revelatory experience.
A travelogue from a talented documentary filmmaker, however, isn't necessarily as eye-opening. As proof, this critic presents Exhibit A: Roger Willemsen's An Afghan Journey.
An Afghan Journey, Roger Willemsen, Jaico, Rs 275
Like the prosaic title, this is an underwhelming book about a topic brimming over with possibilities.
Set at a time when ravaged Afghanistan saw its first national elections, it had the potential to answer a great many questions from readers outside: Questions about the continuing influence of America, contemporary views on the fading Taliban, or what the future holds for people used to decades of mind-numbing conflict.
Roger Willemsen tries, but eventually fails, to give us insights that stick. Could the fault lie with his translator (it was written in his native German)? Possibly.
Even so, it's hard to justify the jumpy transitions from place to place or the burying of potentially interesting stories like, for instance, that of the women footballers of Kabul. Brevity is a prized possession but, in the hands of a writer without the gift VS Naipaul possesses, risks being labelled lazy.
Willemsen's book meanders, seemingly without focus. It juxtaposes facts with random observations, snatches of dialogue with anecdotes from admittedly interesting characters.
What it fails to do is engage the reader a fatal flaw considering the travelogue writer must, above all else, play the role of guide. It ends up being an appetiser when what you really want is the main course.