New Internationalist

Benares and In Baylon

September 2004

The two small novellas that comprise this book can both be described as road stories in which little happens but much is suggested. In the first, a group of friends from Bénarès, a tiny fishing village in the south of Mauritius, win some money in a card game and decide to take a trip to the capital Port-Louis. Here they find a couple of prostitutes and, on the taxi journey back to Bénarès, the group swap stories, hopes and dreams. In particular, they discuss their village’s namesake, the sacred Indian city of Benares (now Varanasi), where devout Hindus go to die. To the friends, this coincidence of names symbolizes the exotic possibilities that lie beyond their remote, impoverished village.

In the second piece, In Babylon, an unnamed narrator travels through Iraq just after the first Gulf War. As he passes burned-out tanks and negotiates countless roadblocks, he meditates on the lives he sees: ordinary people touched by global upheavals far beyond their control. In what is perhaps the only ‘action’ of the piece, the narrator is robbed by a group of polite, apologetic youths who describe their penury and list the countries they’d like to escape to.

In both these drifting, dreamlike narratives the overwhelming sense is that life is elsewhere and most things are beyond human understanding. Muddling through, the author suggests, is the best we can hope for but, in our confusion, we sometimes stumble upon connections we had not hoped to find. There is, he says, beauty to be found ‘even on roads that lead nowhere’.

Peter Whittaker

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 371 This column was published in the September 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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