London journalist Smith takes a superficial look at several of the countries that inspired Graham Greene.
Great travel books, particularly those written by the British, typically have their genesis in a quirky idea advanced by an eccentric traveler: Redmond O’Hanlon heads off to Borneo in search of an extinct rhinoceros; Eric Newby abandons his career in fashion for a “short walk” in the Hindu Kush. For her part, Smith’s inspiration came from Greene’s novels, often set “in lost, lonely, neglected parts of the world.” Based on nothing more, Smith decided to look up the haunts that had intrigued Greene. Her travels took her to Mexico, Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Cuba, Haiti, Paraguay, and Argentina. By Smith’s own admission, however, Greene rarely stayed in a place for more than a few weeks and generally showed no interest in the local population other than as foils for his fully developed expatriate protagonists. Moreover, he was a notoriously dyspeptic traveler; he loathed many of the places that he visited because he viewed their cultures through the distorting lens of his own Englishness. Like Greene before her, Smith spent only a few weeks in each country. Consequently, she is more tourist than traveler, and her insights into the places that she visits suffer accordingly. The accounts of her trips often couple a petulant tone with a tendency towards questionable generalizations. When she turns to complex topics like the Vietnam conflict or the Zapatista movement in Mexico, Smith inadequately disposes of them in a few paragraphs. With the exception of the chapter dealing with Sierra Leone, which is compelling largely due to the horrific situation there, she simply has no good stories to tell and is not a sufficiently gifted writer to fashion good material from her mundane experiences.
A clever premise inadequately executed, shedding little light on either Greene or the places he explored.