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NONFICTION: Travelogue

Andrew Mueller, I Wouldn’t Start from Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong (Soft Skull, 2009)

Andrew Mueller’s hopscotch travelogue, I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong, is driven by an attempt to discover why the world’s most discordant nations won’t stop being such hotheads. A London-based, Australian-born rock critic and travel writer, he moves from serious to witty to occasionally hilarious. Each of the book’s 33 chapters recounts a trip taken (quite often on assignment for the now-defunct British magazine The Face, many times with a sidekick photographer, and almost always as part of some sort of convoy) to a location with political events that either almost unilaterally defy rationality (Jerusalem, Israel; Baghdad, Iraq; Belfast, Northern Ireland) or demonstrate unanticipated strategies of sensibility (Djerba, Tunisia; Tirana, Albania; Sukhum, Abkhazia).

Mueller’s smart word choices, quaint English diction, and absorbing storytelling make his fluency in places international seem not only cool but also responsible. I would have been happy to read about 33 more places I will most likely never visit and certainly could know more, or at least something, about.

Mueller has a knack for transforming dumbfounding situations into engrossing tales. Expeditions through Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East repeatedly find Cold War relics such as Kalashnikovs, Yugos, and a terrifying Russian-built Mi-8 helicopter still in circulation. A May 2003 visit to Baghdad elicits the following observation from a young antiques dealer: “Next time you come”, said Odai, “maybe things will be working again. I don’t understand how it is that America can bring hundreds of tanks all the way to Iraq, but no generators.” Such anecdotes show the very different ways that circulation, production, and distribution take place around the globe. They also inadvertently suggest a different explanation for the frustrating inequity he documents than the “reason vs. passion” model to which he consistently returns. 

His chapter on the July 7, 2005 bombings in London is swiftly concluded with the following analysis: “They all did what they did for the same reason—that they are, or were, ignorant, malevolent, irredeemable scum, the ‘root causes’ of whose anger should no more concern anyone than the reasons for the yappings of a rabid dog.” Resting on the assumption that his moral argument makes more sense than theirs, and is therefore better, Mueller plays the same game he supposedly reviles. Tellingly, when he is dumped midway through the book, his girlfriend’s solidarity with the foolish half of the world lands him “in hospital.” The opportunity is here for Mueller to use his war-torn private life to reconsider the black and white juxtapositions he’s been applying to his writing, but she disappears, simply becoming one more bad guy.

Despite the title’s implication of resolute disaster, Mueller is ultimately sort of hopeful about the rest of this century. Most chapters are not only lively but also pleasantly surprised by the complexity of their subject’s inhabitants. The concluding chapters position Al Gore and, umm, Bono, as exemplary beacons, and Mueller’s final endorsement supports a value system he sees happily functioning in London: “indifference.”


Melinda Cardozo

Melinda Cardozo is a writer and blogger.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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