Short Breaks in Mordor (75 Books – XXXIII)

Reading e-books is, for me, an act of desperation. As I’ve written before, I love books as physical objects, and only resort to my Kindle if there’s no other feasible way to read something. So, this is how I read Short Breaks in Mordor, the newest book from Peter Hitchens, published exclusively in digital format.

His difficulty in finding a traditional publisher is unfortunate, because Short Breaks, which collects many of the author’s articles on his travels around the world, is well worth picking up and I’d love to have a physical copy of it. Destinations vary from Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho, and in each place Hitchens speaks to as wide a variety of people as he can meet to give readers a good sketch of the people who live there.

For example, in Iran he does speak with the type of religious fundamentalists one expects the country to be full of based on its portrayal in Western media. However, he also finds several examples of quiet resistance to the Islamic Republic, and finds a wide variety of opinions on the West and on their own country, and the resulting articles give a much more complex idea of what the country is like. On Iran’s dress codes, for instance, he observes, “Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations. Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty. But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well.”

Probably the most interesting section is the one on North Korea, because there is so little information available about the country outside of a small handful of accounts like this from the few who’ve been able to visit. Reading Hitchens’s account, it’s little wonder that the Kim regime doesn’t allow many tourists in, because even from the relatively little that visitors like Hitchens are allowed to see, much of what he writes sounds like the draft of a dystopian novel. In one brief but odd incident, his group sees a man either dead or drunk lying beside a road. “I couldn’t stop myself from asking our minders, ‘Why is that man lying on the ground?’ though I knew it was a silly question, that they were not going to answer it, and that it was bad form on my part to have noticed the tableau at all. But I received an answer anyway. Whatever he was doing there, he wasn’t supposed to be doing it, and I wasn’t supposed to see it. Within 30 seconds, a group of nearby citizens had been summoned to form a human screen, loyally shielding the sight from us.”

The article is full of small incidents like that. Here’s another one:

Taking cruel advantage of what I assumed was the naïveté of our guide, I offered to buy her an ice cream from a stall at the top of the stairs, using my North Korean coin. She declined but obviously felt she had lost face. So taking even more advantage, I asked her to translate for me at a small snack bar, where I asked the prices of various sandwiches and drinks on display. She was about to tell me when both her senior colleagues converged on us, wearing forbidding expressions and ordering her urgently to stop. The price of a cheese sandwich in Pyongyang remains secret, as the authorities wish it to be.

Even the articles on places I’ve read a good deal about before had material that was new for me. In Japan, for example, he talks about the plight of the unemployed and homeless:

Look carefully in any Tokyo park and you will see signs of this almost Victorian fringe economy, and its proud, genteel misery. In Ueno Park, next to several grand art galleries and a concert hall, there are little tent villages of tiny homes, screened from sight by twee fences rather nauseatingly adorned with pretty pictures of cottages, clouds and trees. These are not the squalid hovels you might see in Europe but tragically respectable homes, clean and intensely tidy, sometimes with carpets, where visitors must remove their shoes before entering.

The only criticism I have of the book is that it has a surprisingly high number of typographical errors scattered throughout. Though not a major problem, at times it feels as though this were copied directly from a blog with no additional proofreading.

Also, and this is entirely subjective, since he does cover so many subjects some articles are more interesting than others, depending simply on how much interest one has in the country being discussed. Of course, those who follow Hitchens’s blog will have read some of this material already.

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