studies in travel writing

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Westlake, Mike, 51 Soko to the Islands on the Other Side of the World (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990).

Montesquieu, in his Lettres Persanes of 1721, imagines Persian visitors writing back to their homeland about what they encountered in France. In this, Westlake's fourth novel, four Japanese men - a chef, a businessman with a clairvoyant partner, a fictional hero turned author of his own story and a motorcycle production-line worker torn between nationalism and internationalism - address fifty-one letters (soko) to symbolic notables on the islands of Britain.

These letters draw upon the fascination of sliding beneath the skin of contemporary Britain. Never condemnatory, always puzzlingly polite, the four epistolary fellows gently mock the quirks and contradictions represented by, among others, Barbara Windsor, Lord Lucan, Gilbert and George, Winston Churchill, Fergie and Di, Frank Bruno, Michael Fish, Trevor Huddleston, and the editor of the Sun.

Forty-eight of the soko are collected under headings - Food, Money, Bodies, Nature, War, Buildings, Writing, the Unfigured - categorisations which force us to rethink old distinctions. What is personal, what social? What now is the difference between science and magic? mathematics and ethics? aesthetics and gastronomy? Can telling stories be distinguished any more from compiling lists? How does nation connect with international capitalism? Which is the Occident and which the Orient?

This is a novel about Japan, about Britain and about something else altogether.

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