Times Literary Supplement, 14 January 1994

The king’s the thing

Katie Hickman

Ten years or so ago, anyone who owned a pair of Timberland boots, and had enough money for a cut-price ticket to Timbuktu felt free to inflict a book about their journey on English readers. Over the past few years, however, publishers are no longer keen to fund this kind of project; the result is a pruned but altogether more thoughtful body of travel prose. Obscure Kingdoms is a book in such a vein. Instead of taking a country, Edward Fox takes a theme, and with it, a pleasingly oblique way of looking at the world.

Fox's theme is kingship. Who, or rather, what, he asks, are kings? And how, at the end of the twentieth century, an age surely inimical to them, have they managed to survive? They are thought by some to bring paradise to earth, "fructifying the land and subduing it at the same time". Others are thought to be capable of attaining a mystical union with God: they are receptacles of supernatural power. Is kingship (there are no queens in Fox's compendium) a symbol of self in its highest state of fulfilment? Or is it merely a form of delusion, a state of manic-depressive psychosis? (Fox wryly points out that the cure for ordinary mortals who suffer from similar psychosis -- delusions of grandiose identity etc -- is 800-1600 grains of lithium daily.)

Although his quest takes him to five different countries, Java, Nigeria, Swaziland, Oman and Tonga, there can be few travel books in which the author is quite so dismissive about the actual act of travelling. In fact, he sets out to do as little of it as possible. In Java, waiting to see the king, he boasts of how he did not visit Borobudur, the fabulous Buddhist temple complex which rivals Angkor Wat; he preferred to sit on the verandah of his hotel and read War and Peace. And, he despises other travellers: "I was interested in transcendental kingship. With them it was just Bali, Bali, Bali." Indeed, he becomes so locked into the idea of his "quest", that the search for material, for cracking the nut -- an intellectual rather than a geographic nut --becomes an obsession. There is probably no travel writer who has not experienced something of this sort, but Fox carries it further than most. In each country that he visits, he sets out to meet the king. But kings, of course, are notoriously difficult to meet. In Nigeria, Fox dreams that he has been condemned to spend the rest of his life compiling an encyclopaedia of Yoruba kings (of which there are countless numbers): in Java, he arrives to find that he has just missed an important palace contact, who is carried out of his house in his coffin as Fox arrives. One cannot help feeling that the official has died on purpose, in order to avoid seeing him. Just getting to Jakarta, a longish but simple aeroplane journey, reduces Fox to a state which he describes as "plankton ...eyeless, defenceless, senseless, directionless". In Nigeria, where the Yoruba language is tonal, it is some time before he realizes that instead of saying the word for "palace" each time he gets into a taxi, he has in fact asked for an "albino". Fox is always lucid, and his observations are counterpointed by a fine, dry sense of humour. His analysis of the mystery of kingship is elegant, but Obscure Kingdoms succeeds best as a study of obsession (it is the only travel book I have ever come across which might reasonably be expected to sell the strip cartoon rights.) The kings’ world, like one populated by fabulous mythological beasts (which in a sense they are), frequently takes on the flavour of hallucination. “Everywhere I went… meaning seemed to evaporate as soon as I approached it. It glittered only from a distance, like a mirage.”

Since we can no longer travel further than our predecessors, today’s travelers must journey deeper. In this, Edward Fox admirably succeeds.