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19 November 2018

Book Review: Travels With My Aunt

Travels with My AuntTravels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I simply loved this book the first time I read it, oh, 15 years ago? It outlined a life I could then only dream of. A kind of existence that I thought impossible. And not all the CIA/crime stuff. Just the life of wandering about having adventures.

Now I kind of have that life. Over the past three years, I have wandered around over 15 countries and lived in two locales that bear the markings of being rather exotic.

So on this re-read, I was not as taken with the locales and the idea of just going somewhere to go somewhere. And when that wasn't blinding me, I was open to noticing the flaws of the book, the worst of which is that it is poorly constructed and loosely bound, as if Greene wrote it in 7 different chunks, a month apart for each, and relied on his memory to recall what he'd written in the last chunk when he started the next one.

But I still liked it. The adventure. Aunt Augusta, the kind of woman we love in books and TV but would complain about endless were she part of our lives. A woman who, like the story she tells of Uncle Jo, is prolonging life by making each day something different.

And the periodic moments of Greene's writing that resonate. Like:

"Her hand was on my knee, and the enormous wrist-watch stared up at me with its great blank white face and its four figures in scarlet, 12 3 6 9, as if those were the only important ones to remember -- the hours when you had to take your medicine."

And this moment when two businessmen are discussing ideas about how to get rid of an inventory of plastic straws; "Then we produce medical evidence. That is the modern form of the legend. The toxic effect of imbibing alcohol through a straw. There is a Doctor Rodriguez here who would help me. The statistics of cancer of the liver. Suppose we could persuade the Panama government to prohibit the sale of straws with alcoholic drink. The straws would be sold illicitly from under the counter. The demand would be tremendous."

And this...

"'In a year,' my aunt said, 'what would you two have to talk about? She would sit over her tatting -- I didn't realize that anyone still tatted -- and you would read gardening catalogues, and then when the silence was almost unbearable she would begin to tell you a story of Koffiefontein which you had heard a dozen times before ... You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you'll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it every night while you try to sleep and Miss Keene reads.'
'You may be right, Aunt Augsuta, but isn't it the same everywhere at our age?'
'Not here it isn't. Tomorrow you may be shot in the street by a policeman because you haven't understood Guarani, or a man may knife you in a cantina because you can't speak Spanish and he thinks you are acting in a superior way. Next week, when we have our Dakota, perhaps it will crash with you over Argentina. My dear Henry, if you live with us, you won't be edging day by day across to any last wall. The wall will find you of its own accord without your help, and every day you live will seem to you a kind of victory. "I was too sharp for it that time," you will say, when night comes, and afterwards you'll sleep well.'"

And this kicker, which stabbed me right in the heart:

"People who like quotations love meaningless generalizations."

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