A journalist’s demanding, exasperating life on the move finds a kissing cousin in the world of crosswords, one informing the other as he tackles each new development on the road or on the puzzle page.
The crosswords Balfour refers to are the devilish items found in the British press: double lits and reversals, cryptics and anagrams and embedded structures. “A good crossword will be riddled with double and triple meanings,” he writes. “The clue must read easily and mean something. But the surface must also be misleading.” As Balfour makes his way through the world, having fled South Africa to avoid conscription into a war to sustain a morally bankrupt system, he encounters the same flux in places like Leipzig, Romania, and Moscow: not all is as it appears. Often enough, Balfour finds parallel universes applying to his own circumstances—not so much as to become wearying, but pleasingly snug in their fit when remarked upon. Balfour’s travels are engaging, for he is in the thick of the European and African transitions of the 1980s and ’90s, but sometimes the events feel like digressions from his growing infatuation with crosswords, in particular the very special artistry of the London Guardian’s puzzle setter Araucaria, who epitomizes the ideal “not to be clever, but to be surprising.” Those who think that Balfour might be getting overexcited when he says, “Crosswords tell stories about ourselves. Crosswords express our humanity,” have only to remember that more periodical readers scrutinize the puzzle page than the news sections. If Araucaria can work the names of Biko, Hani, Mandela, Tambo, and others into his puzzle on the day that South Africa holds its first democratic election (“These were people I thought Guardian readers should know”), then crosswords may well be the message.
A parallel that might have seemed meretricious instead gives pleasing structure and metaphor to a witty, literate, and lucid memoir.