Duck Duck Book

41 – the 8:55
01.17.2007, 4:51 pm
Filed under: history & geography

The 8:55 to Baghdad / Andrew Eames.
Woodstock, NY : Overlook Press, 2005.
[MCL call number: 915.6 E12e 2005; 6 copies, no holds]

After her divorce from her first husband in 1928, Agatha Christie did a surprising thing.  With her daughter safely installed in a boarding school, she boarded a train and made the long journey from London to Baghdad.  After this point, she spent a major portion of each year in the Middle East, especially after she married her second husband, an archaeologist whose work took him to Iraq every year.

Andrew Eames, a travel writer, undertook to re-create Christie’s journey in 2002, just before the United States and its “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq.  On his way through Europe and the Middle East, Eames stopped in a dozen or so cities, where he investigated for traces of Christie, engaged in some light archaeological tourism, and just wandered around a bit, talking to people, looking at marketplaces and rivers and the local architecture, and reflecting on the differences between how each spot seemed to him and what it must have been like in the 1920s when Christie first traveled through.  An eloquent biography of Christie’s life in Iraq, and generally during the period after 1928, is offered in pieces throughout the book, but many other subjects enter the narrative as well: a history of Yugoslavian nationalist politics, musings on the importance of religion to the Syrian city of Aleppo, an account of the skirmishes between various countries for control of the (now Italian) city of Trieste, and many other distracting questions.

Eames’ writing is particularly poetic; if the book were one or two hundred pages instead of an imposing 390, I would recommend that all of you read it out loud, rather than silently in your own heads.  Descriptions of the mundane elements of the world going about its daily business are rendered vivid and heartbreaking in Eames’ prose.  For example, from pages 56-57:

“The last part of the journey from Venice [to Trieste] had proved to be easily the most scenic.  With the power of the sun beginning to wane, I drew back the curtains and was thus able to witness the giant shoulder of limestone karst known as the Carso emerge from the distance and charge like a bull across the Venetian plain, forcing the railway to crowd fearfully to the edge of the land.  Meanwhile the view out of the other window pretended nothing was happening, persisting with a slide show of peaceful blue images of the flat Adriatic, littered with becalmed yachts, and the distant Croatian shore.”

Armchair travelers will enjoy this vivid story, especially those who appreciate a bit of history with their story-of-going-to-an-exotic-foreign-place.  Anyone with a slight interest in Agatha Christie, the history of railway travel, or Iraqi archaeology may find the book a mild but pleasant education.  But all readers who appreciate thoughtful, eloquent prose should find themselves captivated by Eames’ artful telling of this smoothly disjointed story.


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