African dream

Desert Divers

Sven Lindqvist <em>Granta, 192pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 1862073597

This is many books in one. A Swedish writer travels to the Sahara for time and space to think over the breakdown of his 30-year marriage. But why the Sahara? The question prompts Sven Lindqvist to return to the travel books, novels and adventure stories set in north Africa that he devoured as a boy. Mixing confessional narrative, literary analysis and history, Desert Divers is a neat, accessible work that, for westerners drawn to the vast reaches of this desert, asks all the right questions. Equally shrewd, it refuses easy answers.

The writers considered won't necessarily be familiar. Pierre Loti, so popular in fin-de-siecle France, is now rather a cult interest. His neglected shrine, a museum in his Roquefort home, retains its creator's design. Each room is themed according to an aspect of Loti's journeys, hence the Egyptian Room, the Arabic Room, the Turkish Room. Isabelle Eberhardt, who was inspired by Loti, is now better known than him, largely for her bizarre, polymorphous behaviour as she travelled as a man through Algeria. Eberhardt also converted to Islam, which was rare among western visitors then as now. If Loti's bric-a-brac suggests the excess of a past era's orientalist appropriation, Eberhardt's self-reinventions and repeated acts of self-destruction speak more directly to our times.

Desert Divers offers two further case studies who should be more familiar to English readers: Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the pioneering pilot and author of The Little Prince, and Andre Gide. The latter, Lindqvist reminds us, flirted with the forbidden sensuality of oriental youths, especially boys. Still, his fictional account of his time in Algeria, Fruits of the Earth (1897), unfairly blamed Oscar Wilde for his fall. The Immoralist (1902) was more direct, and shocked through the disgust of its narrator, Michel, at the clapped-out boys of Biskra. At the age of 15, they had shone; two years later, Michel finds them coarsened and cynical through work. "How honest occupations brutalise!" he comments.

There is much to recommend in Lindqvist's new book, although some weaker sections irritate. These are mostly fantasy interludes or literary games. Lindqvist is also less than compelling when writing about himself. He identifies the extent to which the "safety vent"of the colonies had provided romantic escapism to writers, artists and others from "the banality of the bourgeoisie, the tristesse of marriage". But compared to the compelling self- excavations and self-deceptions of, say, Loti and Gide, Lindqvist's own marital problems seem, if not banal, certainly everyday.

The nearest that Desert Divers gets to sanctification is in the case of Saint-Exupery. Lindqvist notes the romantic appeal of the airman - last seen in The English Patient, and a commonplace in the writings of W H Auden and his circle. The pilot, like today's astronaut, was "the most modern man of his day", a cipher for modernity. At the same time, Saint-Exupery proves to be as hopelessly ill-informed as the other writers about the native populations that his craft - of both kinds - skims over. Lindqvist connects "Saint-Ex's" love of new technology with his uncritical, largely ignorant fascination with alien cultures. He persuasively argues that the two reveal the noble-born author-pilot to be, for all his writerly virtues, a feudal reactionary.

Other detailed explanations of context - especially the atrocities associated with the French conquest of the Algerian Sahara - distinguish Desert Divers from the starry-eyed and period feel of many of the works mentioned. But for those of us who dream of the solitude, purity and sense of release that accompanies desert travel, such concerns cannot dull its appeal.