The Agony Column
Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011
US Trade Paperback First Edition
Publication Date: 08-04-2009
288 Pages ; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 02-16-2009
Index: Non Fiction
Clear, well-written, even poetic prose can tell us so much about the world; it can tell us much more than we ever suspect. There's something about the process of observing the world then converting those observations into words that cuts through the surface noise, that can allow writers to "see" more than they think they are seeing. Michael Katakis has been writing daily and travelling for more than thirty years, and his book 'Traveller' is a remarkable work that manages to capture a world in words.
'Traveller' unfolds as a series of journal entries, none too long, some only a single paragraph. They're not in chronological sequence, nor are they organized by country or direction. Instead, there's an inner poetry that threads together Katakis' vision of a world gone gently and sometimes maddeningly awry. But it's an achingly human world, full of real people who find themselves in places of wonder, horror, sorrow and joy, a world where language, informed by the past, informed by written history, evokes an eternal present the reaches from the past into the future.
'Traveller' is a quick read, and doesn't require that you read it in order. The book itself is, as Kurt Vonnegut once described a life, "unstuck in time." True to the title, Katakis is a traveler, and he'll take you from Sierra Leone in 1988 to Paris in 2004 with a quiet, powerful prose that makes the transition seem instinctive - just right. Katakis is also a photographer, and many of the entries and letters have a photographic feel about them. They are prose snapshots that use language to capture more than just mere image. Katakis evokes the emotions and the underlying sense of history in each of the places, each of the scenes he describes, and these emotions and history provide the thread and through-line that make the whole of 'Traveller' so much more than the sum of its parts - though that sum in itself would be quite impressive.
What emerges, however, is a certain sense of prescience in the language, informed by history. When he writes about the current events that inspired him to leave the United States behind, Katakis looks back to the writings of T. E. Lawrence, and there finds the words that will define our future. By focusing so clearly on the various "presents" he was describing, Katakis is able to tease out the threads that connect not only his writing, but also history. 'Traveller' is a deceptively easy book to read, but it ties you up in visions of the past that will haunt you in the present and stay with you in the future. .