Return journey

Cocaine Train: Tracing my bloodline through Colombia Stephen Smith <em>Little, Brown, 256pp, £17.99

In his new book Stephen Smith, a Channel 4 reporter, embarks on a search to discover the truth about his grandfather, who had an illegitimate son and worked as a pioneering railwayman in Colombia for more than three decades. At times, it reads very much like a Boy's Own adventure, full of guerrillas, narcotics, kidnapping threats, railways and football matches. Smith was inspired to trace his roots by the realisation that he has for too long taken his Britishness for granted. His account begins slowly but within a few chapters you really begin to care about what he will discover about his family.

Smith, who declined the assistance of an armed bodyguard, writes well about the fear of travelling in a non-western country. The heat, the smell of a man drinking coffee, the constant anxiety about being kidnapped and the daily murders which take place on the streets around him (on average 99 people are murdered every day in Colombia) - all this imparts an attractive edginess to the text.

This is a book that could only have been written by a man; girls are invariably "flirty", Smith is excessively self-deprecating when confronted by a tearful female friend and there are many macho phrases such as "the limo was practically ticking over outside the prison gates". But this writer has a good eye for the fleeting and bizarre, and there are some marvellous descriptive passages which compensate for too much excited detail about railways - his description, for instance, of the tension of watching the 1998 World Cup match between England and Colombia as the only Englishman in a bar, or his experience of travelling on a bus where paying for a ticket was "sportingly underwriting the driver in his high-maintenance pastime of playing chicken with other road users".

As well as being a family history and travelogue, Cocaine Train offers an excellent account of the presidential elections that saw Andres Pastrana win power, and Smith is particularly good on documenting the lives and deaths of the ordinary Colombians he meets. An editor should have included a decent map of his route (though the black and white photographs are fascinating), and the decision to add explanatory sentences in parenthesis to remind us of characters from a previous chapter ("Isabel, the name which had emerged when my mother had visited the hypnotist") is patronising and unnecessary. Still, Cocaine Train deserves to share the success of Smith's previous excellent travelogue, The Land of Miracles: a journey through modern Cuba.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities