Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Dark Tourist by Dom Joly

From The Week of April 17, 2011

What drives people to embrace and explore the fringes of our world? Is it a need to be different, or do some people simply find a fascination for an unusual life and all the experiences it affords them? Mr. Joly, a British comedian, sheds some light on this question with The Dark Tourist, an exploration of some of the world's grimmest and most tragic sites.

From the ski slopes of Iran to the radioactive rubble of Chernobyl, Mr. Joly takes the reader on a journey through human folly. For him, there's no difference between government sanctioned bus tours of North Korea and lunatic-lead inspections of JFK's place of death; it's the odyssey that matters. It's the opportunity to speak to the believers and the skeptics, to the propagandists and the conspiracists, all in an effort to further, through wonderfully droll humor, an understanding of the darker side of life. Along the way, Mr. Joly encounters some remarkable misfits, but even these flamboyant characters struggle to outshine the quiet suffering of the North Koreans he brushes up against, or the befuddled bureaucrats who try, and fail, to make sense of a passport stamped by countries as diverse as Iran, Israel, North Korea and Lebanon. Add in Iraq and Mr. Joly would have hit all three countries of George W. Bush's Axis of Evil.

Sure, there's indulgence here. Only a wealthy and shameless Westerner would conceive of deliberately exposing himself to the kind of human nightmares from which the victims can only think to flee. But while his ghoulishness is inescapable, Mr. Joly conveys, here, a depth of feeling that reveals him to be more than just some dark tourist. He is, in a sense, making a catalogue of human stupidity, both ideological and practical. And in doing so, he's reminding his readers that there are places in the world which have, to all outward appearances, gone quite entirely mad.

Beyond the content, which is first class in both its humor and its sight-seeing, Mr. Joly has told his tale with the right balance of fatalism and impishness. There are omissions; he's clearly glossed over some of his less interesting trips, preferring to feature those that moved him, or that provided moments of ridiculousness and drama. But this flaw does not mar the whole, a powerful and puerile examination of the events which have left gaping craters in the bedrock of our civilization. It's strange to say of a book which is, in some sense, a celebration of death, but The Dark Tourist has a vitality that I won't soon forget. (4/5 Stars)

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