Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2010
by Susan Griffith
Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile
By Michael Katakis
The prevailing characteristic of Michael Katakis's travel writing is its humanity. He is moved, sometimes to tears sometimes to laughter, by his encounters with the people he has met over his decades of travel in exile. The format of the book is a succession of journal entries and letters to friends, dated but in no chronological order. Some of his short journal extracts are not dissimilar to Jan Morris's, like the lifeaffirming description of an early morning serenade by a street musiciancumbusker under his apartment window in Paris.
Always he is curious and sympathetic about people met, qualities which have no doubt helped to turn him into a superb photographer. The nicely produced little book includes more than a dozen of his photographs, of women gossiping in the Medina in Fez, of two gnarled Cuban fishermen proudly holding up a gutted marlin and, most poignant, a group of shyly smiling children in Sierra Leone who may not have survived the horrific civil war of the 1990s.
Travel and politics are always interconnected but in this book the author wears his politics on his sleeve. No longer believing in nationalism or unbridled capitalism, he believes in "the right of the people in these photographs to have lived their lives full measure, with hope that one day life could be better for themselves and their children". In letters to friends in the US he makes explicit the reasons for his selfimposed exile (all preObama of course), that he can no longer tolerate the "ugly face of America… the arrogance, criminality and brutality" of its foreign policy.
He has sought permanent refuge in Europe and the wider world, and in the connections he can occasionally make on a personal level across cultural and linguistic barriers. Yet his cast of mind and moral seriousness remain peculiarly American, as is his uninhibited devotion to his wife, an anthropologist, lushly described in one of the final entries of the book entitled "My True North."
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Taking a Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.