I BELIEVE in reading, while I'm there, about wherever it is that I've gone. And so I have carried Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard with me to Sicily, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea to Dominica, Carl Hiaasen's novels to Miami. One of the headiest blends of book and place I've ever whipped up for myself was Keri Hulme's multiple-prize-winning and New Zealand, where the author lives and where the novel is set.
The tale unfolds in a craggy seaside back of beyond on which rain seems always to be falling -- as is the case in parts of the real New Zealand, alas! The Bone People has a worse-than-grim theme, the artful disclosure of which I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't read the book. The characters are prickly and antisocial; one in particular is monstrous. I was astonished to find myself empathizing with this person, but empathizing I was.
I read The Bone People on both islands of New Zealand, in rooms in hotels, motels, and lodges, and on Air New Zealand flights between one and another. The New Zealanders I met may have been eccentric, yes, but they were open and welcoming -- nothing like the book's characters. A good example would be my seatmate on one flight, an octogenarian whose arm was in a cast and who couldn't stop relating that he'd dived into the water near his home every day for years and years and years, and then the other day he'd done just what he'd always done but the impact had fractured his arm, and how was that possible, how could that be? Another time when I was in the air, a flight attendant, serving me a cup of tea, glanced at what I was reading. She commented on the book, favorably. We had a whole conversation about The Bone People. I loved being in a land where flight attendants have the time and the inclination to chat about wrenching great literature. Everyone and everything in New Zealand seemed more complex than I had any right to expect, and I loved that about it too.
IT'S a strange circumstance of the arbitrary, straight-line divisions between our western states that the Four Corners area concentrates so much of the American landscape. The Navajo reservation, which overlaps all four states, offers a varied terrain of crisp mesas and deserts and pine mountains rising in winter into snow. The San Juan River flows through here, past dusty villages of trailers and stained government-built houses. The people are poor and Native American and not set up for strangers. They are in a way exotic. Even so, the region seems to me to be a celebration of the ordinary. It is accessible. It is unpretentious. More than any other single place, it seems to define an authentic United States.
This brings me to Tony Hillerman, the ex-reporter whose detective stories about the Navajo police are equally accessible and authentic. Quietly, mysteriously, without making a fuss about it, Hillerman's work captures the full sense of the Four Corners, and with it a sense of America. Any of his books will do. I take them with me to lonely or hostile parts of the world, not just for entertainment but for the grounding they provide. And I've learned that they serve the same purpose on their home turf: an activist Native American recently told me that members of his tribe give their children books by Hillerman, a white man, to encourage them to love their land. Hillerman's race doesn't matter. He pretends to write simple mysteries, but he is a master of the North American landscape. He reminds us all what we should remember about one another.
THE real Berlin can be sunny -- in August even warm. But the Berlin I love in books is always dark at four-thirty on a November afternoon, chill wind on the Kurfürstendamm, everything damp, the light oily through the fog. In Brussels such conditions would merely be clammy. In Berlin they call up a melancholy decadence that makes the city irresistibly romantic and sad.
The wartime horror of course shapes this sense of doom and mystery, but most of the appealing Berlin literature is set just prior to or after the war. Otto Friedrich's a prose equivalent of George Grosz cartoons, made me want to see the remnants of the flickering Weimar-era life -- the Bauhaus quarter where Walter Gropius's buildings still stand, the gritty Wedding suburb that inspired Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, "Mack the Knife." Thomas Berger's underappreciated series of "Reinhart" novels begins with This book, published in 1958, is much funnier than a John LeCarré novel -- yet it also set the tone of cheerless, tattered Cold War spying that brought LeCarré fame five years later with Charles McCarry's and use the postwar Berlin of black-market cigarettes and hasty de-Nazification to much the same literary effect. Taking the U-Bahn to the deserted Olympic stadium, I could picture Hitler watching the black American track star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Games, and also Berger's and McCarry's furtive characters of the 1950s meeting in the shadows to trade secrets.
I have not seen the city again since reading Philip Kerr's trilogy of wartime detective novels, or John Marks's recent novel about reunification, -- or, for that matter, since the Wall itself came down. No doubt the reunited Berlin is a cheerier, less complex and brooding place. But I suspect that as dark falls, in the cold, the mystery is still there.