The Unchanging East; or, Travels and Troubles in the Orient
Boston: Page, 1900
Robert Barr died one hundred years ago yesterday. I spent much of the morning, afternoon and evening with the man. Yes, I did. The Measure of the Rule (1907) may be Barr's most autobiographical novel, but it's with The Unchanging East that you really get a sense of his character:
When the steamship company sent me their printed rules and regulations, one item therein immediately attracted my attention. It was to the effect that no passenger was allowed to bring liquor on board with him, so this reminded me that certain decoctions were grateful and comforting, as the advertisements say, besides there always being a pleasure in breaking the rules; so I at once brought four bottles from Caledonia in case I should meet some personal friend...Only a fool or a teetotaler – same thing, really – would pass on the opportunity of joining a man such as this on his travels.
Barr begins in a hansom cab bound for the Manchester docks:
A thick autumn fog, saturated soot in suspension, enveloped the town. The drive from the station proved most unattractive – I should not care to liken it to a trip in Hades for fear of exaggeration, because Hades at least is warm, and I believe the atmosphere must be more clear than that of Manchester.Mancunians are not alone. The overly sensitive will wish to gird themselves; nearly every place and every people come in for a ribbing on this voyage. Not even the people of Scotland, the land of Barr's birth, are spared. Witness, if you will his comments on that petite Maltanese land mass we 21st-century English speakers know as Gozo:
The island should by right be inhabited by Scotchmen, for it possesses a coin valued at one-sixth of a cent, and if, as the saying has it, the farthing was invented to enable the Scotchmen to contribute to the cause of religion, then the islands of Goza [sic] and Malta should be three times more attractive to us Scotchmen than any other spot on earth.The only people to draw complete and unqualified praise are "the Druses", whom Barr describes as "a most admirable people, extremely hospitable, ready to share their last crust with any stranger who happens along, invariably refusing money for the services they may render a traveller, and they are always fond of a joke."
Where other fin de siècle travelogues glaze the eyes, Barr's dry humour and observations make this a book that I would not put down. This isn't to say that there is not unpleasantness, but for much of the journey, our author's "troubles" are trivial: street vendors try to take advantage and trips by rail prove uncomfortable. He witnesses no violence, and relays old news of massacre and slaughter with the cold hand of a statistician.
The unchanging east? No longer. Much as I enjoyed the journey, throughout it all I couldn't help but wonder about the grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of the Syrian women who looked out from the frontispiece.
Headaches might be avoided by simply buying the single-volume English edition, published in 1900 by Chatto & Windus, except that it seems an even more uncommon beast. The only copy listed online is another library discard. The bookseller is honest – perhaps because it came from a church – describing its condition as "Fair". There was no Canadian edition.
Twenty-one of our academic libraries, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the ever reliable Toronto Public Library have copies.