[Eric Newby: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958)]
Newby, E. (1958). A short walk in the Hindu Kush. London: Harper Press, 2010.
If Eric Newby wasn’t dead, I would write to him and tell him how underwhelmed I was with his book. I would also thank him for introducing me to Wilfred Thesiger. Despite my opinion, others describe Newby as “The most successful travel writer of his generation” (Observer). How they can describe pompous English humour and a tale that is insulting to both mountaineers and the people of Afghanistan as successful, I don’t know. Yes, Newby’s book is comical, but it is also densely written, hideously Eurocentric and painfully sarcastic.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is about an English dress salesman who decides to leave his job and travel to Nuristan, Afghanistan. Since the Afghan government is reluctant to allow travellers into Nuristan, Newby and his travel companion (Hugh Carless) instead ask for permission to go on a climbing expedition. Neither Eric nor Hugh have “done any real climbing” (p. 18), but the four days training in Wales and the climbing pamphlet will surely be sufficient. The first six chapters describe the purchase of many items that they don’t know how to use, their ‘training’ in Wales and their trip to Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. But don’t be fooled, it is not until the end of Chapter Six that their journey actually begins.
So why, if their “journey was about to begin” on page 69, did we need the first six chapters? Newby is basically admitting that you might as well start at Chapter Seven. In another acknowledgement that sections of his book really aren’t worth reading, Newby gives “Readers who are not interested in the history and geography of Nuristan” the option to stop reading part way through Chapter Seven “and start again at Chapter 8” (p. 81). Be sure to believe him in his admission that this section really is boring enough to skip, because the mind boggles at the amount of un-interesting detail he includes. Newby’s interjections of historical background continue throughout the book and make for very disrupted reading. For example, in Chapter Nineteen he wastes three pages describing the historical expedition of Emperor Timur Leng. Since these passages are over-detailed and thus very difficult to read, the temptation is to skip them and simply move on to a later section.
What is most disconcerting about these historical interjections is that they seem more like made up stories than historical fact. Whether or not this is true I don’t know, but they led me to believe that much of what Newby depicts as fact may actually be fiction. The improbability of many of the scenarios that these idiotic travellers find themselves in supports my claim. In Chapter Five they almost run over a nomad who is lying wounded on the road. The nomad ends up dying and the authorities think that it was Hugh who ran him over. It seems that Hugh will be prosecuted, especially since he didn’t have a Diplomatic Visa for Turkey, but all of a sudden they are let off the charges because they “were all gentlemanly” (p. 50). Improbability can also be noted in the rest of the book, which details the month they spend attempting to climb Mir Samir of the Hindu Kush and traveling to Nuristan. For example, it is questionable whether two men as inexperienced in climbing as Eric and Hugh could actually have made it to “700 feet below the summit” (p. 191) of unclimbed Mir Samir (19,880 feet). Conveniently, an unfortunate incident results in the soaking of their belongings in a river and “It seemed unlikely that any of the film would survive” (p. 255). Since much of the photographic evidence of their trip would have been destroyed, has this allowed Newby to fictionalise the majority of his expedition?
Although he tries to hide it, Newby’s intention is to persuade his readers that he and Hugh are the most amazing travellers EVER. We should admire them for attempting to climb Mir Samir. We should applaud their bravery in making it to Nuristan. We should love Newby’s humour and his ability to write such vivid descriptions of Afghanistan. Many critics would argue with me and say that the self-deprecating tone of the book indicates that Newby’s intention cannot be what I have just described. They would argue that since Eric continuously acts to belittle himself that he is not trying to persuade us to admire him. But if this is the case why is it so important to Newby to highlight the uniqueness of their trip?
It is true that we had met several people of different nationalities who said that they were just about to set off for Nuristan: so often did they say it that our project began to seem almost commonplace. However, we were reassured by an old inhabitant. ‘I’ve lived here thirty years,’ he said, ‘and I can’t remember a time when someone from town wasn’t threatening to go to Nuristan. But it’s all talk’ (p. 93-94).
The use of the term “reassured” suggests that Eric and Hugh would have been extremely disappointed had their trip been seen as commonplace. Why? If their travels weren’t unique then other people would not look upon them with admiration. In regard to Newby’s self-deprecating tone, it is simply a clever tool to trick readers into respecting him. Despite his efforts, Newby does not effectively achieve admiration and amazement from his readers. His disregard for the native people and his careless and irresponsible behaviour ruins any possibility of him being seen as an amazing traveller.
There are countless examples of the slim regard Eric and Hugh have for the customs of the local people. Not only does he describe them in ways that make them seem strange and dirty, but he also mocks the modesty of the women as he describes some as “saucy ghosts” (p. 97) and others as “slyly using their veils” (p. 99). The prejudices that he has so obviously brought with him continue throughout the book; Newby deliberately tries to take photographs of an aylaq (stone building) and its occupants even though he knows it is against their religion. This lack of respect is indicative of how he views the world in terms of Western experiences and fails to accept that different cultures have different values and ideals. To travel to a country that is rich in both culture and religion with a closed mind is ignorant and makes for a very irritating read. To further my irritation, Hugh tricks their local guides into travelling with them to Nuristan even though they “advanced every possible objection” (p. 196).
Not only do these two men have an arrogant sense of entitlement, they are also irresponsible and careless. Attempting to climb an unclimbed peak of 20,000 feet when they have absolutely no experience on glaciers and only four days general training is both ridiculous and stupid. Before they even reach Mir Samir and “in the space of three hours and some ten miles”, Eric’s “feet looked as though they had been flayed” (p. 117). Eric is mystified as to why this would have happened and declares that it must be because the shoes were slightly pointed. Not that I know much about mountain climbing, but isn’t it common knowledge to wear your boots in before doing a long hike? Eric’s slim regard for his own safety also extends to his family. He barely bothers to mention his wife and children throughout their journey although at one point he “wondered whether [his] wife was dead, and who would look after [his] children” (p. 57).
The only high point of Newby’s book is the abrupt ending. Not only was I finally done with this underwhelming story but I was also introduced to Wilfred Thesiger. In the last chapter Eric and Hugh make it out of Nuristan, where they happen to come across another English explorer. I don’t know much about this legendary traveller, but he concludes the book by calling Eric and Hugh “a couple of pansies” (p. 269). I don’t feel that anyone could have summed them up better. If Eric Newby wasn’t dead, I would write to him and thank him for introducing me to Wilfred Thesiger; his one line was more truthful and hilarious than anything Newby has ever written.