Jim Coughenour's Reviews > The Road to Oxiana

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
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's review
Jul 23, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: armchairtravel
Read in July, 2010

It only took me a few days to read this book about Robert Byron's 1934 journey through Persia and Afghanistan, but those few days were spread across six years. Byron's artfully artless "entries" ramble from exquisite lyricism to passages of undiluted boredom – although now, at the end, I've succumbed to its enchantment. Rory Stewart, in his Preface (which like all prefaces and introductions is best enjoyed after reading the book) observes that Byron more or less invented travel writing. "In Byron, literature about the Orient is no longer tragedy; it is burlesque."

Byron opens his book in Venice with a splash of brilliant, brittle repartee (quoted in another review here) – the kind of comedy you'd expect from Sebastian Flyte if he'd ever left Brideshead. But Byron isn't the feckless, upper-class Oxonian he appears; he was "small, round, unathletic, and homosexual," a cash-starved, self-taught authority on Byzantine and Islamic art. (His appreciative descriptions of medieval Islamic architecture kindled my own curiosity – inducing me to order Robert Irwin's Islamic Art in Context.)

I had a shocked laugh, though, when I read his description of giant Buddhas of Bamyan, dynamited by the Taliban in 2001:

Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens. Even their material is unbeautiful, for the cliff is made, not of stone but of compressed gravel. A lot of monastic navvies were given picks and told to copy some frightful semi-Hellenistic image from India or China. The result has not even the dignity of labour.

This is typical of Byron's best – independent, impolitic, disgusted with cant in all its guises. The Road to Oxonia is more than a travel classic, it's a witness to an Afghanistan that's largely disappeared – thanks to the Soviets, the warlords and the Taliban, and our own embittered intervention.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Trish (new) - added it

Trish Oh, thank you for that review. Must have a look at The Road to Oxiana one day. I love your particularly fluent language of description.

message 2: by Jim (last edited Jan 07, 2011 05:35PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Coughenour Thanks Tish. I do think you might like this - although as I said it has its dull moments. This week I'm deciding between two other books on Afghanistan (after all those wikileaks that disclosed what everyone knew): Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos or more appealingly, Peter Levi's The Garden of the Angel King, a 1970 journey by Levi and a young Bruce Chatwin to Afghanistan that echoes Byron's trip.

However, I may miss both. I'm visiting a friend in Portland in a couple days & we're staying a block from Powell's bookstore, so my libido sciendi will be flaring out of control.

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