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June 30, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | June 30, 2008 |

Michael Palin is a lucky bastard.

Given that I am a broke student who has chosen a major which will likely result in her living in a shoebox in the middle of the road, it feels a bit like rubbing it in when the introduction to Michael Palin’s New Europe begins with a description of the coming together of the documentary, or, as I see it, a reminder of how easy travel is — when you’re paid to do it with 17 staff members accompanying you to help pay, plan, communicate, and document, with high production values and no need to take time off work because hey, this is your job. He’s a comedian, journalist, and a traveler. Basically, Michael Palin stole my life and lived it first. Logically, I should loathe the thieving little monster, but I don’t. He’s always been my favorite Python, from when I was 12 and my dad played tapes of their records in the car, beginning my own personal British invasion.

New Europe is Palin’s seventh travel documentary. Each documentary is released as a BBC miniseries in 4 to 10 episodes of 50+ minutes, and a companion travel book is released soon after. In New Europe, Palin travels through 21 countries, formerly of the Soviet Bloc, which have, to him, been hidden behind the Iron Curtain, despite their proximity to Great Britain, for most of his life. Palin examines the evolution of these countries, how they have evolved, and where they’re headed, comparing and contrasting the changes that have taken place in them throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

This is a travel book, not a travel guide. It doesn’t tell you where to get the best deals, nor is it a list of tourist attractions, but a story of Europe’s history, and Palin’s experiences traveling through it. The focus, for those of you new to the Palin travelogues, is not on comedy. Like all good travel books, New Europe is a bit of a history lesson, too. Palin studied history in university, and his passion for it is obvious.

The problem, of course, is that you could write a whole book, or film a whole show, on any one of the 21 countries visited, and still miss out on some fascinating stuff. Definitely the most glaring criticism of New Europe, which Palin himself has copped to on his website, is its over-ambitiousness. It’s hard to do justice to the histories and quirks of 21 complex countries in a 288-page picture book.

In addition, the book was rushed to print and it shows. There are some unpolished sentences, with unnecessary repetition and some unclear phrasing. One problem I’ve had with all of Palin’s travel books is his tendency to mix incomplete, diary-like sentences such as “Wake up. Rushed to boats.” with longer, more lyrical and detailed passages full of history, description, and scenery. Either you’re publishing your diaries or a travel book, but the two mixed together just looks unedited. Add the extra word in Palin, the book can take it. “WE wake early,” there’s a good lad. It’s clear that he spent a long time and much care writing the book, and equally clear that he (or his team) didn’t spend very much time putting it together.

Despite this, I actually enjoyed New Europe immensely. Palin is a good storyteller in a genial, grandfatherly way, and is endlessly nice — polite and respectful of other cultures, he never resorts to cheap gags for humor. There’s very little more pathetic than someone who can’t let go of success in their past, and while New Europe has more references to Palin’s life as a Python than any of his other books that I’ve read, it’s nice to see that he’s comfortably moved on.

Palin clearly loves travel, but he doesn’t shy away from discussing the impact of tourism on culture, economy, and environment. A comparatively lengthy section on Dubrovnik, Croatia goes into this in detail, as do his discussions about German environmental initiatives. This infectious enthusiasm is obviously what drives him, rather than fame and money. The book’s entire text and photographs are available for free online at his website.

Basil Pao’s photographs, incidentally, are stunning, as usual, but he could stand to ease up on the fish-eye lens. The panoramas are beautiful, and I understand the desire to capture as much of the experience as possible, but the distortion can get a bit distracting when seen in virtually every picture.

For those of you who have seen the TV shows, and are wondering whether the book is worthwhile — the answer is: hell yes. Not only is the book worth reading on its on merits, it also compares favorably to the TV documentary in almost all ways (not that the documentary is bad, mind you, but it’s certainly one of the weakest of the seven). The show, for example, can do 30 pages of the book in less than 15 minutes. It feels rushed, and jumps around in time, while the book is organized chronologically. Although the same places are visited, there are different focuses in each, and there is so much more insight in the book. It’s clear that a lot of time and effort was spent filming, but it’s also clear that the viewer doesn’t get to see half of it due to time constraints. Although originally limited to six episodes, the BBC ultimately allowed for seven and it still wasn’t enough. Palin writes as he speaks, though, so the tone, humor, and intelligence level is pretty much equal. Of course, there are some things you get from the show that you simply can’t get in the book — the scene with the leeches in priceless. And gross.

New Europe has some faults, but it is a good introduction, however, and there are plenty of places to go from here.

Donna Sherman works in a bookstore, and is now writing book reviews. She predicts she has two more months before she gives up on English and begins speaking in tongues, and she can’t summarize to save her life. Contact her at [email protected]

Have Book, Will Travel

Michael Palin's New Europe by Michael Palin / Donna Sherman

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