Wanderings in the world of imagination

The surreal tales in Barry Yourgrau's "Haunted Traveller" embody some hard-won real-world truths.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Every once in a while you stumble on a book that so captivates you, you drop everything else you were supposed to be doing and just read and read and read.

That's what happened to me last weekend. I was flying to Los Angeles for a travel festival, and on the recommendation of a colleague I threw into my carry-on bag a new book called "Haunted Traveller," by Barry Yourgrau.

I had been planning to accomplish all manner of things during that journey -- get my life organized, make notes toward those unwritten articles on Paris, Japan and the Philippines, plan the kids' summer schedules -- but instead I opened "Haunted Traveller" in the airport.

Two and a half hours later, when we landed at LAX, I was still reading -- my life still disorganized, my notes still unwritten, the summer still a bright chaos.

When I first opened the book, I thought I would just swoop through it, like a bird winging through a wood to see if there were any branches worth perching on. But this is not a book you swoop through, a fact that was clear by the third tale, "Suitcase," which begins like this:

I'm on an old-fashioned train. I doze off to the gentle sway of the wheels. I wake up. I blink. Then I sit bolt upright. My suitcase is missing. I look around wildly. The train has stopped, in the open countryside. I leap up and throw open the sliding door and rush out into the passage, shouting for the conductor. The carriage is deserted. So is the next one. I come back and see the outside door of my compartment open. I clamber down. A crowd of passengers is gathered by the tracks a ways off. They watch the conductor kneeling over an open suitcase, whose contents he is strewing over the ground.

It's my suitcase. I give a shout and go running along the side of the train. "That's mine!" I cry, as I come up breathlessly. "That's my suitcase! Someone stole it. What are you doing -- where did you find it?" The conductor looks up at me mildly as I squat beside him. "This is yours, you say?" he says. "Yes, yes," I assure him irritably, scrounging around for my personal things and restoring them to semi-privacy under the eyes of the crowd. "Someone made off with it while I was asleep. Where did you find it?" "In your compartment," he says. "On the rack above you."

I turn my head and stare at him. "What are you saying?" I demand. He shrugs. "You were asleep,' he says. "We didn't know whose it was."

This piece is typical of Yourgrau's work. It begins with a scene any traveler can identify with -- dozing on a train, waking up (awakened no doubt by some subtle change) to find things not as they should be: a suitcase missing, the train not moving. You wander around and find that, inexplicably, everyone is gathered outside the train. You join them, wondering, "What the hell is going on?"

I've been there myself.

Then things take a turn for the surreal. The suitcase is your suitcase, and the conductor is going through it in public because, well, you were asleep and they didn't know who it belonged to.

At this point the story begins to feel like an M.C. Escher print, where right in front of you familiar things are turning into something eerily unfamiliar.

This is the pattern of many of Yourgrau's brief tales, and I was enchanted by them: the account of a vacation in a well shaft, or of an excursion to view man-eating monsters, or of a journey on a tramp freighter that is tantalizingly not at all what it seems.

My favorite tales in the book begin with exotic but utterly believable traveler's scenes -- like the safari in "Pouches," the sampan and pagoda journey in "Silk" or the hotel robbery in "Break-In." For a moment or two you can easily place yourself in the same scene; then everything begins to tilt, and suddenly you're on a wild ride, where all the logic and learning you've brought to the trip are suddenly rendered useless.

The wonderful irony, of course, is that this is precisely what happens to travelers in far-off places (and sometimes not so far-off places) in the real world. You arrive somewhere with all the expectations and preconceptions you've brought from your youth, only to find that the people you're among have grown up with entirely different expectations and preconceptions. They drive on the wrong side of the road. They eat insects. They don't believe in individual initiative. They worship a toenail or a tree.

This is ultimately what I love about Yourgrau's inventions. Not only do they evocatively embody the allure of the exotic, they also manifest principles central to the wanderer's life: There are no set rules or boundaries, reality is capricious, anything is possible, the fantastic can intersect the actual at any time.

Not all the 44 pieces in "Haunted Traveller" are as strong and successful as the ones excerpted here. And in fact, I think that reading the book straight through, as I did, does the tales a disservice. The twists in theme and style become dulled a bit by repetition -- better to savor these spicy stories a few at a time.

But taken as a whole, "Haunted Traveller" is an enlightening delight. Yourgrau's Borgesian tales teach me all over again why I travel: to be surprised and tantalized, to see the world with newly opened eyes.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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