The book I love by the writer I hate

The Bumper Book of Vitali’s Travels, by Vitali Vitaliev, Thrust Books, 612 pages (and you’ll want to read every bloody one of them)

Vitali is my friend and I hate him, as I’d hate anyone making me commit a deadly sin, in this case envy. No one from Russia – or, worse still, the Ukraine! – should be able to write such dazzling English and get away with it, certainly not in a review by another native Russian speaker.

It’s not only for this shameful reason that I’m a wrong man to review this book. For Vitali describes himself as a dromomaniac, meaning he is every inch consumed with wanderlust, which I every inch am not. Not only has he hopped around the globe several times over, but he has also been writing travel notes, which are collected in this volume.

Now, generally speaking, travel writing is far down the list of my favourite literary genres. In fact, it doesn’t even make the list at all. However, speaking specifically rather than generally, Vitali proves there is no such thing as boring genres – there are only boring writers, a category to which he manifestly doesn’t belong.

I’ve read The Bumper Book from cover to cover, but starting with the essays on the places I know well. Or so I thought.

Reading Vitali’s prose, I was humbled to discover that, like the hapless Dr Watson, I saw without observing, meaning I didn’t really see much. Conversely, like the eagle-eyed Sherlock Holmes, Vitali sees because he observes. And like the inspired virtuoso he is, he takes but a few words to make us see things we ourselves missed so blithely.

His quiver of metaphors and similes would be too bulky for anyone else’s back, but Vitali’s is broad and sturdy enough. And every arrow-like weapon is honed sharp enough to pierce any armour of tired old stereotypes.

As a rule, I avoid quoting a reviewed book too profusely, but I don’t know how else to convey Vitali’s mastery. Any attempt merely to describe it would be like trying to describe the taste of, say, avocado. A reader would never get an accurate idea until he has tried the fruit for himself. So here are a few delicious morsels:

“Didn’t I myself once compare London to a curvaceous bikini-clad blonde who has wandered by mistake into a drab, male-only Pall Mall club?”

“I have come to regard it [Venice] as an aging, yet still graceful, woman, suffering from insomnia and dragging restlessly around the house in her worn-out, loose-fitting slippers in the night. Soft splashes of water against the ancient Venetian stones are like shuffling of slippers across the floor…”

On Riga: “It was late afternoon in March. Stray cats were copulating frantically on time-beaten cobbles. A plush Volvo of the latest make was crawling up a narrow lane squeezing into the gap between houses like a gleaming dagger into a tight sheath.”

On Prague: “Baroque architecture… strikes me as somewhat beer-inspired: this excessive ornamentation, this profusion of curved and interrupted lines, these heavy and solid – almost stout – facades, this beer-foam-like multitude of cupolas and turrets… And isn’t it true that the best examples of baroque architecture can be found in beer-loving countries? Please correct me if I am wrong (which I probably am).” A wine-imbibing Roman would probably oblige with gusto, but Vitaliev writes so well, I don’t feel like correcting him on anything.

“Walking in Manhattan, where the traffic is so slow that it gives the impression of travelling backwards, I spotted an elderly woman asleep inside a capacious shopping trolley, her bare feet sticking out like two freshly bought overbaked baguettes.”

On New York’s Brighton Beach, mostly populated by Russians: “A couple of elderly immigrants, carrying an indelible ‘I-am-waiting-to-be-hurt’ expression on their faces, could be seen strolling along the wet wood-paved boardwalk. From time to time, they would stop and stare at the ocean, as if trying to discern the outlines of their native Odessa on the horizon.”

“While in New Orleans, I was tempted to compare it to:

“A joyful scream, a gentle shock; a sophisticated mess, like a Cajun dish; a cup of strong black coffee that cheers you up and keeps you awake throughout the night; a friendly blow in the solar plexus that leaves you bent over and gasping for breath, and yet with a blissful smile on your face…”

And on and on, the world comes alive one sentence after another beautifully shaped sentence, one page after another perfectly structured page, one chapter after another chapter short on words but long on startling imagery and X-ray vision. If the purpose of literature is indeed to enlighten and delight, then The Bumper Book does so with the verve and precision seldom found in this genre.

This gets me to the starting point: the authentic and yet idiosyncratic English this reprobate has the audacity of writing.

Whenever I am described as a Russian author, or a Russian anything, I invariably quote Joseph Conrad: “My nationality is the language I write in.” Vitali cites this retort too, in his essay on Andrei Makine, the French writer who, like us, was raised in the Soviet Union.

By that criterion, Vitali is a British writer par excellence. But he wouldn’t be the British writer he is without the experience of having been (and lived) just about everywhere. An experience I for one am grateful he has put to such a thoroughly enjoyable use.  

4 thoughts on “The book I love by the writer I hate”

  1. Sold! Vitali’s on my reading list for this year. Though he’ll have to wait behind a few others.
    Any thoughts on Rick Steves? Are his travel books and shows as fraudulent as they appear at a glance?

  2. When I read the title of this post I assumed the author in question was a communist!

    Anyway, for years now I’ve harboured a keen dislike for globe-trotters, the type who head off to far flung corners of the world in a futile effort to find ‘themselves’ on a “gap yah”
    However, if Mr Vitaliev is anything like our host, I may well be converted. I daresay a literary guide (compiled by PLUs of course) is essential these days, for those wishing to avoid an endless slog through redundant drivel.

    1. I’m with you on the subject of globe-trotting. One has to see the key highlights of our culture in one’s liftime, and of course visiting nice places with good food is enjoyable. But the most important travel is done in a man’s mind, and it doesn’t have to go anywhere physical to function.

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