“Kingdoms in the Air” gathers a baker’s dozen of Bob Shacochis’ wartime dispatches, wartime even in peacetime, such is the urgency of this journalism. Shacochis — when he isn’t practicing his graceful fiction, with its clashes of comprehension among cultures — specializes in passionate travel to distant places. These places, often enough, are in lockdown by forces from governments to organized crime. Still, one of the articles’ beauties is their absence of bravado; instead, there is a big heart, an eye alert to beauty, a temperament to engage different ways of being in the world — “Aspirin and vodka, the breakfast of criminals” — and an existential awareness of atmosphere: history, landscape, culture, prospects. Seasoned traveler, Shacochis knows when to walk away, knows when to run.
Remember when a Maoist insurgency threatened Nepal? There was Shacochis, reporting from Kathmandu: the clamor of corruption, dread and body counts; the venality of the ruling class; the betrayals and confusion of an infant democracy.
Shacochis describes with the same patience the seeming frivolity and indispensability of the tourist trade, as he does experiencing Nepal’s Mustang Valley, its remoteness eluding comprehension, yet bewitching. He is in a rare place, far stranger than Kathmandu’s Freak Street — “If you were a freak afoot in the world in, say, 1968, this is where you stopped, this was the end of the imaginary beginning” — and trippier, so high the air molecules that turn our sky blue, here turn the heavens violet. He succeeds in lifting, fleetingly, the curtains to both locales.
Shacochis reports from Russia’s famous nowhere — Kamchatka, home of carpetbaggers, tycoon sportsmen and Mafiosi as thick on the ground as gooseberries (and locked-down to foreigners; locked-down, for that matter, to locals). His rafting trip devolved into an “awful hybrid of absurdity — Samuel Beckett meets Jack London,” as his dry-rotted raft sunk lower and lower, while he secretly sought to witness the river’s rape for its caviar.
He reports from Turkey’s Mount Arafat (locked-down) and Erzurum (where wolves roam the college campus) on a test of his own stuffing. He fails in a bid for the summit, thanks to smoker’s lungs — “the wash of oxygen was missing.”
In Cuba, which suffers the touristic apartheid of all economically impoverished, scenically glorious nations, his guide notes, “Karl Marx says to take what you can of your enemy’s good points and use them for your self.” As good a wisenheimer as there gets, Shacochis replies, “That’s not how my mom told me to run a revolution.”
Shacochis, too, is a hybrid, though not absurd. To grasp a place, he will read Foreign Policy, but also entertain a land’s mystery, intrigue, shadow play and myth. “The night turns milk-blue, ghostly, vaporous. The city animates light, and amplifies everything within a life. The self crackles in the ether like a sheet of electricity.” Travel is the road to perspective; only your dog should recognize you upon your return. Travel lightly, for nothing “can be exchanged honestly, or permanently, except memories and goodwill.”
Peter Lewis is an editor at the American Geographical Society.
Kingdoms in the Air
By: Bob Shacochis.
Publisher: Grove Press, 383 pages, $26.