James McWilliams reviews Hugh Thomson's The White Rock.
The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartlandby Hugh Thomson
Overlook, 316 pp., $27.95
Alain de Botton recently wrote a book called The Art of Travel, in which he essentially argues that the savvy traveler might be better off staying home and exploring the exotic, undiscovered contours of his own back yard. In his debut book, The White Rock, Hugh Thomson has perversely interpreted de Botton's advice, somehow managing both to leave and stay home at once. Tired of serving Pimms beer to drunks in a West London bar, Thomson throws in the towel, gathers up a few of his slacker mates, and sets out to explore the Incan ruins of Peru. Once he's there, however, Thomson's ostensible and noble aim of writing a less mythically hobbled account of Hiram Bingham's 1912 discovery of Llactapata is undermined by a cultural myopia equally insensitive to the Incan world-view.
From the outset, this memoir-cum-travelogue devolves into a series of trite exclamations whereby the shock of the new becomes "gradual and disorienting," "a surreal end to a surreal day," or so cool as to "feel that we had hallucinated." Once desensitized to the way-cool feeling of stumbling upon Incan ruins, Peruvian snakes, coca leaves, and dusty natives, Thomson finds himself afflicted with, of all things, a toothache, a condition that suddenly casts the exploratory life in a "murderous" mold. The Santa Theresa gnats are "murderous." One paragraph later his backpack is "murderous." Thomson soon becomes "completely exhausted," and, it being only page 42, the reader will, for once, completely relate. Exhaustion sends Thomson home, if in his mind only. An Urubamba watershed strikes him as a place "that Jules Verne or Kipling would have enjoyed." When the local cuisine grates his palate, Thomson removes from his sack a tin of truffle pâté that "I had brought from England." A local guide asks for his watch as payment for his services, a request to which Thomson responds, "It was a Graham Greene moment."
I recently saw this book sitting on the bottom shelf at BookPeople. Allow me to make a suggestion: Don't bend over for The White Rock.