I Wouldn't Start From Here: A Misguided Tour of the Early 21st Century

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

I Wouldn't Start From Here: A Misguided Tour of the Early 21st Century

by Andrew Mueller

Picador, HK$200

Andrew Mueller arrived in Abkhazia in 2005 after hearing about the 'restive patch of Black Sea coast with aspirations of statehood' at a summit of the Unrecognised Nations and Peoples Organisation. Struggling for international recognition after its war with Georgia in the 1990s was overshadowed by strife in the Balkans, Abkhazia had become warily dependent on a predatory Russia. Mueller stops at a former Soviet resort overlooking one of Abkhazia's many litter-strewn beaches: 'It was neither the first time, nor the first place, that I'd contemplated land that the people upon it pledged that they would die for, and wondered why, if they loved it so much, they didn't keep it tidy.'

Right-wing tendencies are an asset to the gonzo journalist. No matter how you mutate the form or which chemicals fuel the prose or how many young men in Che T-shirts read the stuff, gonzo, being journalism, needs to make a point. Left-leaning scribes hold the single onion skin to the sun, marvelling at its complexity and expressing awe for the density of the untouched bulb. Conservatives want to slice through with a sharp gag or observation. Mueller's mildly conservative stance also tells the reader that it's not enough to just read about challenging places and situations: if we stick to visiting Iraq in an armchair, we'll at least have to sit through a few tests of the belief system. For Mueller the rock writer, conservatism is the new rebellion.

Mueller visits the hells on Earth - Iraq, Gaza, Kabul and the Balkans - finding energetic, inspiring ordinary people who only make him despair more. For contrast, he uses his gift for quickly unlocking places on sedate Luxembourg. The self-effacing national anthem, Ons Heemecht (Our Homeland), asks: 'Oh thou above whose powerful hand/ Makes states or lays them low/ Protect this Luxembourger land/ Make foreign yoke and woe.' The message, says Mueller, is: 'Look, we're no trouble. Seriously, you'll hardly notice we're here.

If you have to invade somebody, try France.'

He flees for Palestine, concluding: 'The peaceful, prosperous, free and civilised world is a nice place to live. But I wouldn't want to visit it.'

Mueller writes best about the places that thrive in the headspace between strife and complacency.

After witnessing the economic success of Taiwan amid six decades of tension with the mainland, Mueller writes: 'Were I a George Soros-style billionaire eccentric, I'd establish a program under which the world's nationalist crazies, idiot warlords and dingbat terrorists would be sent to Taiwan, to see what could be accomplished when people stick the grievance schtick on the back-burner, put in a day's work and behave in a civilised manner.'

Sent to Tirana by a newspaper because 'Albanian' had become British slang for anything 'shoddy, cheap and dodgy', Mueller is astonished to find a stimulated, industrious and hip population, along with clean, functioning infrastructure.

He returns for a conference of young activists who helped shape political change in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. They swap stories about how to target youth as the first step to changing the mindset of their parents.

The groups resist making public figures of their leaders, so the organisations can continue if they are caught. They draw on Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King but also Coca-Cola - for ways to make their brand cool via T-shirts, stickers and matchboxes. They suggest wooing foreign media by always comparing their struggle with Paris in 1968 when speaking to French journalists or the Solidarity movement when it's Polish press. Mueller comes away convinced that he has met future presidents and political prisoners at the conference.

He wonders whether some of them miss the excitement of their revolutions. It's one of several knots in Mueller's line on common sense, indicating we have yet another white suburban boy looking more for adventure than answers. Branko Ilic, the leader of Otpor!, which helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, scoffs at the suggestion that he's bored without the tyrant.

Mueller is candid about those kinks in his system. He's the experienced traveller with a fear of flying, the war correspondent with no taste for gunfire. Ernest Hemingway cast a bullish mould

for war correspondents of the second world war, where the goodies and baddies were easy to distinguish. Vietnam had rock 'n' roll writers who hated the war but loved the action. Mueller's book is an excellent example of why today's brave, lucidhacks are forced to admit fear and confusion.