Eric Newby


looking for punchlines

[note: I’ve been reading the English original]

The story: it’s the year 1956, and Eric Newby is an Englishman in his thirties who works in the fashion business. One day he decides that he’s sick of it all, and so he sets his mind on a mountain climbing expedition to Afghanistan. His friend Hugh Carless, who speaks a bit of Persian, comes along.

The problem: neither of them is a seasoned mountaineer. They decide to practice on a few boulders at home first, then they drive to Istanbul and down to Iran. Eventually they make it to Afghanistan, where they venture into relatively unknown territory in order to find the particular mountain that they originally set out to climb.

They never make it to the top. But in the end, they run into exploration legend Wilfred Thesiger. Or so the story goes.

Eric Newby, travel writer of great fame

The resulting book is legendary. It’s almost as if you can’t talk about travel writing without mentioning Newby. Much has been said about his “English humor” and his particular sense of understatement.

And yes, he is a funny writer. Especially the parts about the fashion industry in the beginning were hilarious. But to me, the fun wore off after a while. Or rather, I got weary of it. It almost seemed as though Newby was putting on some sort of an act after a while. As though he was just looking for punchlines.

the hype

I have a hard time enjoying any work of art that makes me feel as though the artist didn’t really care for it. This is the feeling that I got from this book. I enjoyed some parts – most notably the beginning and the end. Other parts bored me to tears.

Maybe it was because I had been expecting too much from this because of all the hype. To me, it seemed like one of those books that you put down and think: so what?

who might want to read this

Newby’s feat of traveling to Afghanistan and doing some mountaineering there at that time is respectable. His storytelling is nice, his writing style can be very funny, and the insights and observations he shares are okay.

If you are into Afghanistan in the first half of the 20th century, or if you are into humorous British travel writing, this might be your thing.

Also read: Peter Fleming, for a better humorous approach to travel writing.