Monday, 2 July 2018

Like looking through someone's holiday photos

The Innocents AbroadThe purpose of Mark Twain's 19th century travel guide is "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him."

Reading the book was a little like looking through the photographs of a friend who has recently returned from holiday. There are lots of boring descriptions of works of art and landscapes, interspersed with very entertaining adventures. The "pleasure excursion" begins on board the USS Quaker City, delayed, like many 21st century holidays, due to bad weather. After a rather dull boat journey across the Atlantic, the ship enters the Mediterranean Sea, and stops at various places to allow its passengers to venture further inland for sight-seeing.

Twain's first encounter with the locals is quite disagreeable. He gives us his opinion of the Portuguese, who are "slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy." On reaching France he finds the Marseillaises never "wash with their soap themselves." These stereotypical character descriptions are rude, but Twain asserts in his preface, "I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not." He entertains us with his cynical opinion of venerated Catholic relics and pokes fun at tourist guides and tourist sites. Once the group arrives in the Holy Land, it becomes apparent that the so-called Pilgrims who had made the journey for religious reasons are no more righteous than Twain and his fellow Sinners.

Traveling through the Holy Land, the heat becomes oppressive and the poverty too conspicuous to be ignored. By the end of the book I was as glad as I think Twain was himself to end the long journey.