Two years ago, when I was obliged professionally to dine on a regular diet of travel books for a weekly programme I presented on BBC Radio 4, I resolved to write one myself called Walking Backwards Across Tuscany. This would combine the wackiness of popular travel writing with the certain sales that come from any mention of Tuscany in a book title. I had no intention of leaving Florence pointing the wrong way, but I would just pretend that I had and watch my income rise.
I gave up quickly once I realised that the genre could not bear the weight of my lumbering parody.
Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch have been braver, producing Molvania. The cover accurately mimics a real (if ropey) guide book, with its smudged photos, garish colour and "jet lag travel guide" logo, but it is the only guide book I have ever seen with a plug by Bill Bryson splashed across the front saying, "Brilliantly original and very, very funny".
So what is Molvania? As its name suggests, it is an amalgam of eastern European countries. The introduction informs us: "Panoramic scenery, magnificent neoclassical architecture and centuries of devotion to fine culture are, admittedly, all in short supply." Made up of the Western Plateau, the Great Central Valley, the Eastern Steppes and the Molvanian Alps, it is nevertheless one of the smallest countries in Europe. The capital, Lutenblag, lies under a thick blanket of smog and has "a fairly reliable electricity supply to all but the outermost suburbs". The ring road runs directly through the centre of town, the locals' meat is pickled, and the restaurants levy a "departure tax" of 12 per cent. The jokes come thick and fast. You're looking, at the rate of just over ten per page, at a total of roughly 2,000 gags, which would be good going if they were not all pretty much the same.
The writers' technique is to turn a typically jaunty travel-guide paragraph into something bathetic or just plain nasty. Molvania's national stadium, for example, has fallen into disrepair since a failed bid to host the 1994 World Cup. And so, "Designed to hold 80,000 spectators, it is now used largely for rock concerts and public hangings." The joke in the subtitle - this is "a land untouched by modern dentistry" - will be familiar to viewers of The Simpsons or Austin Powers, except that in the films, the joke is at the expense of the British. Here, we have lots of pictures of people with no teeth - a second-hand gag indicative of the lazy thinking behind large parts of the book.
The design does its best to distract you from the monotone prose with baffling maps, sorties into heavy typeface and coloured boxes of "facts", including snippets of information such as the feat of the country's most famous philosopher: he proved that he did not actually exist. Somebody has even gone to the trouble of compiling an index.
But about ten minutes into the book, I began to feel depressed at the small-mindedness of the project. The sniggering jokes derive from the notion that foreigners are ghastly and funny and that eastern Europeans, in particular, are unsophisticated, dirty, humourless, ugly, cheating and, er, racist. The publication of this book is not much of a welcome to new members of the EU: "Oi, gappy-mouth! Go suck some cabbage!" The book's natural habitat is in the toilet, where it can lie around and spring its initial brief surprise on visiting friends. Alas, by the time they come to wash their hands, they will probably have read quite enough about Molvania.
Arthur Smith is a broadcaster and stand-up comedian