Friday, September 13, 2013

Book review: "The Innocents Abroad" by Mark Twain

This book is NOT an easy read, but it does have its rewards.

"The Innocents Abroad" is a long and meandering travelogue recounting Twain's 1867 trip to Europe and the Middle East aboard a chartered steamship carrying American tourists. Twain is observant, droll and amusing, but he also bogs the narrative down with numerous tedious tangents and obscure literary and biblical references.

It is interesting to see the world of 1867 through Twain's eyes and to find that many of the annoyances of travel then are still common today pushy vendors, long-winded guides, aggressive beggars. But it's also fascinating to see what's different the difficulty of finding soap in Europe, for example, or the need to travel partly by carriage, horse and donkey.

A couple of scenes were especially enjoyable. In Greece, the Americans were forbidden to land. Desperate to see the Parthenon and the Acropolis, Twain and others snuck off the ship in the middle of night, crept through city streets and then bribed guards to see the landmarks. Later, at Yalta on the Black Sea, the travelers remarkably got to meet the emperor of Russia simply because they were Americans, and were treated as grand representatives of their country.

While Twain makes it clear that he is a Bible-reading man, he despises those who are excessively pious or who use religion arrogantly. Italy, he says, has built magnificent churches while "starving half her citizens to accomplish it. She is today one vast museum of magnificence and misery." In the Middle East, he mocks those who operate questionably "holy" sites to lure in tourists.

It is hard to imagine any travel writer as blunt as Twain. He describes the Azores as "eminently Portuguese that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy." He says Moorish women have "atrocious ugliness."

The most disturbing element of the book is Twain's bigotry toward Muslims. He calls the Muslim Turks "by nature and training filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive, superstitious." He calls the residents of Damascus the "ugliest, wickedest-looking villains we have seen." He unapologetically says Muslims will never be the equal of Christians until they learn to repent.

This is a long book (my edition was 495 pages of rather dense type), but I found you don't have to read it straight through. Since there are few continuing characters, you can put it down and pick it up later with little loss. To avoid getting bogged down, I suggest you skip over Twain's numerous digressions and instead skip ahead to the parts where he is actually traveling or personally engaged in an activity.


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