Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Devil's Road to Kathmandu

In Beijing in 2008, a few months after the Olympics, I wandered lost in a backstreet with a friend, looking for a vegetarian restaurant. We bumped into an odd looking chap in a hat who was looking for the same place, and teamed up. Thus I made a new friend, an academic sometimes trapped in Canada, who'd send me emails from strange places, like a North Korean-themed restaurant in Vientiane.

And that led to me looking for reviews of Pyongyang - there's a branch in Laos and another in Bangkok, and it was the second one that inspired Tom Vater to write about it. A strange tale of karaoke and Coca-Cola, and that was enough for me to order a copy of Beyond The Pancake Trench, his bittersweet collection of travel writing where everyone seems to end up dead.

Vater has a great style: not hyperbolic, but not too understated either. I sought out a copy of his novel, The Devil's Road To Kathmandu, but it was out of print. His film about Laos (see, how everything in Asia eventually connects, whether it's men eating in North Korean restaurants or karaoke's universality) is only available via bittorrent, but is worth hunting for. I wondered if that was that; I'd never see the rest of what he'd done.

Then Crime Wave Press out of Hong Kong republished The Devil's Road To Kathmandu, and I had to get a copy.

The e-book edition is a bit odd; the font size is two sizes smaller than everything else on my Kindle, like it was designed to be super lo-fi, and there are occasional glitches where chapters don't start and finish as exactly as they should, but it's not too distracting. I did wonder if there were spelling mistakes or malapropisms; at one point a character is told to put his 'kegs' on, when the vernacular for trousers is surely 'kecks'. Either Vater thought Englishmen wear wooden barrels, or some colloquialisms are bound to be misheard by a German ear.

The Devil's Road is a story about a drug deal that goes a bit wrong; it's about a backpacker in Kathmandu, an overcommercialised hell populated by gap year types and perpetual travellers; it's a strange mystical story about tattoos. Really, I wish there had been more of that: tattoos are clearly an interest of Vater and the chapter that covers this is gripping, sinister and atmospheric, even when nothing much is really happening.

The ending, on the other hand, shows some people are good at writing action and others are not. It feels a bit of a waste of all the foreboding atmosphere that Vater had built up that it would collapse in the way it did; perhaps a few too many plot threads were tied up too neatly. The 'twist' for what it's worth, is either evident a mile off, or an ironic comment on how twists exist in literature. I hope for the second, but believe in the first.

It's a good few years since it was written, and I suppose I feel a little disappointed. While I couldn't read it, The Devil's Road began to assume talismanic status as something incredible, and it couldn't ever live up to that. However, it's a page turner, and it did educate me in (what perhaps should be obvious): Kathmandu isn't some mystical place far off the beaten track any more. Plus, it's not exactly an expensive purchase; if only you could rip the last ten pages from a Kindle edition so that the ending would be forever shrouded in mystery, it would probably be perfect.


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