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An Opportunity Lost
on 20 November 2007
Anyone who, like me, expected to encounter a genuine study of alternative communities in Tobias Jones' travel book Utopian Dreams, will be well displeased by a project that had so much potential, but ultimately got lost amidst its author's self indulgent penchant for repetitive meta-narrative.
In all fairness, I should have paid more attention to the books subtitle; 'In search of a good life'. Even then, the front cover should have stipulated more clearly that it was Tobias Jones' search for a good life rather than the communities he visited! I estimate that the first chapter, in which he visits the alternative community of Damanhur in Italy is 25% experience and 75% reflection. Granted, this is the community that Jones has least time for and the ratio settles at around 40:60 for the remainder of the book, but when I read a travel book I want to read stories, rather than recycled rhetoric and supposedly enlightening quotes from Kant, Voltaire et al.
His prose is at times entertaining and at others, toe-curlingly trite. Take this as an example of soundbites that occurs throughout the book: '..in the New Age the obsession is about humans becoming divine; at Nomodelfia its about the divine becoming human.'
A few pages previous to this particular quote he details a conversation about faith and evolution between one of the elders in the Nomodelfia community (the second community he visits) and an adolescent called Alessio. It is a magical paragraph in the book because it concerns the unadulterated interaction of members of this community (and possible tensions within it), rather than Tobias' ism-tainted observations thereof, or their interactions WITH Tobias, or Tobias' musings on what's missing in his own life etc etc etc. Deliciously human, the moment speaks for itself without the need for further analysis. I wanted the whole book to be like this!
But it isn't, and whilst Tobias's observations of western consumerism are poignant and necessary in order to provide some sort of contrast to the communities he visits, the reason for the 'great escape' as it were, they have also been made before, in rhetoric of both greater and lesser eloquence. They could also have been made more briefly and saved some trees in the process.
I wanted to know more about the characters he met, their personal histories, their world outlook and so on. What we are given instead is teasing glimpses, punctuated by Jones' commentary on Bentham's utilitarianism and Rousseau's earthy idealism. If I wanted to know more about dead philosophers I'd be reading their works not his!
Of course their are connections to be made between the thinkers of the enlightenment and alternative communities that have abandonned societies without balance, virtue or permanency. But Tobias Jones makes them too often and his conflicted defense of religion is as nauseating as Richard Dawkins rottweiler-like attacks on it.
I haven't read 'The Dark Heart of Italy', which is reportedly superb, so I won't cast judgement on Tobias Jones' abilities as a travel writer. But when I read travel books I want to get lost in the places and the people, not the mind of the person writing them.
For anyone else that loves travel books where observations are subtle, and secondary to description, I would recommend Wendell Staevenson's 'Stories I Stole' or any of Tim Parks' efforts. Parks, ironically, is also an Englishman who fell in love with Italy and now lives in the country.
I would like to end this review by saying that 'Utopian Dreams' isn't an awful book. Its just that the combination of a reputed writer and a subject matter that really interests me had led me to expect a lot more.