Far and Away: Reporting From the Brink of Change
(2016) is a collection of essays by the American journalist Andrew Solomon. Though structured like a travel book, most of the destinations included in the travels Solomon recounts are highly politically charged atmospheres, including Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union and war-torn Afghanistan in 2002.
Many of the articles focus on how artists and their creative communities react after the regimes that long stifled their expression are finally toppled. While it's great that artists no longer have to worry about being arrested or worse for their self-expression, the author finds that once these artists began to be courted by fame and fortune, the community that once bound them together by their shared suffering began to come apart at the seams. In the essay, "The Winter Palettes," Solomon discusses the uneasy partnership between artists and the government that replaced the earlier antagonistic one. Describing post-Soviet Russia in the immediate wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain, he writes that the Ministry of Culture in Moscow “which retained a sizable part of the takings, suddenly began looking at the once-detested artists with a self-interested kindness now that they had become a prime source of hard currency.”
Though individually the essays read as pieces of political reportage, taken together, they have the feel of a travel book. This is buttressed by Solomon's emphasis on the importance of travel for shaping young minds. “You cannot understand the otherness of places you have not encountered," Solomon writes. "If all young adults were required to spend two weeks in a foreign country, two-thirds of the world's diplomatic problems could be solved. It wouldn't matter what country they visited or what they did during their stays.”
For example, Solomon says he learns more about the politics of Libya from just a few hours wandering the street than from reams of contemporary political analysis by newspapers and think tanks. In 2006, the United States and much of the rest of the Western World was under the assumption that Libya, under Muammar Qaddafi, had reached a moment of significant stability in the wake of the dictator's decision to condemn state-funded terrorism and to stop torturing and executing his own people. However, Solomon gains a different feeling about the relationship between Qaddafi and his people while walking the streets. Monuments to national Libyan pride have been vandalized and are covered in garbage. When he asks a local about this, he is told that “it’s how the people of Libya piss on the system. […] The Leader doesn’t actually care about this country. Why should we keep it beautiful for him?” These insights are powerful considering that Qaddafi was eventually toppled by his own people just a few years later.
The book was written at a time when sizable editorial budgets allowed journalists to travel the world and camp out in various places for long periods. Throughout the book, Solomon visits all seven continents and more than eighty countries. Some of the far-flung destinations include Greenland, where Solomon writes that 80 percent of its Inuit population suffers from depression. Solomon visits Mongolia and relates the kinds of details only revealed when visiting someplace in person. For example, he is surprised to learn that camels howl at night. He describes their howls as "an eerie sound, like the spirits of purgatory crying out."
A sense of loss prevails in many of the essays. In the wake of toppled regimes, there is a window of hope, Solomon writes. One of these windows opened in Afghanistan in 2002, as the Taliban began to lose its grip on the people. Solomon describes drinking with Afghanis and having to translate the word "hangover" to them. He remembers this moment with great wistfulness, writing, “You were there in those beautiful days. All of that is gone now.”
As Solomon travels around the world, the unifying theme is the importance of getting out of your own country. "A witness can be of more value than a policy analyst," he writes. "An amateur witness, free of conceptual bias, sometimes sees the plainest truth. One should never be blinded by tailoring.”Far and Away
is a smart and expansive book likely to give homebodies a desire for wanderlust. The sense of irony around places that were relatively free when Solomon visited them, but are now marked by horrible oppression, makes the book even more powerful. The Guardian
writes, "The passage of time makes Andrew Solomon’s elegant collection of travel pieces even more poignant."