Guest review: Sam Cooney on Mark Mordue’s Dastgah
Dastgah is an account of Australian writer, journalist and editor Mark Mordue’s first trip overseas: a one-year journey through the regions of India, Nepal, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Iran, and the cities of Paris and New York. The blurb calls it ‘a refined diary’ and ‘an existential journal for the modern traveller’; both are accurate. Effort has gone into lifting the standard of the writing from the scribblings of a travel journal into a coherent narrative, but the fragmentary style and nature of a diary lingers. This ultimately proves to be both Dastgah‘s greatest feature, and a contributor to its partial downfall.
As narrator, Mordue is repeatedly stretched to the limits of his emotions, whether it be joy, despair or sheer wonder, and we are dragged along for every bit of the ride. There are action sequences, moments of humour and plenty of tears. Add to this the various passages of considered introspection, flashing anger, dream-writing, chapters simply consisting of titbits of overheard conversation, and punches of poetry. Dastgah is thus multifaceted: a shattered mirror through which we see slivers of Mordue’s nature (and our own), but slivers only. And it’s just not enough to satisfy.
Dastgah was published in 2001 by Allen & Unwin, and is Mordue’s first published book. It spent four weeks in the Sydney Morning Herald Non-Fiction Bestseller list and was shortlisted for the City of Brisbane/Qantas Asia-Pacific Travel Writing Prize in 2002.
Parts of Dastgah are simply outstanding, especially when Mordue’s voice quietens and the story takes over. Such sections (following the creative writing mantra: ‘show, don’t tell’) are magnetic: the chapter about Nepal is colourful and affecting; the New York experience is exciting; and the caring welcome of the people of Iran and Turkey is enviable – not many in the Western world would open their homes, wallets and hearts as these people do.
However, the travel journal feel of Dastgah prevents the reader from truly connecting with the book. Those remarkably written sections are interspersed with bits that just don’t quite succeed: the poem ‘Never Enough’ sounds like bad rock ‘n’ roll lyrics; the four or five pages about the recent history of Turkey reads like a textbook; and the omnipresent, never-fully-realised nature of Mordue’s girlfriend is distracting. There is also a scene in Turkey where Mordue treads very close to Western snobbery, when he feels ‘pity [for] both the women and men here: what they are; what they can never be’. Granted, this could simply be a harmless musing, as Mordue embodies the exact opposite ideals. Only a few pages on, he clarifies his mental state: ‘But maybe all I curse is being a tourist’. This is one of many questions Dastgah asks: does having the means to travel to other cultures also give you the right?
Mordue did intentionally fashion Dastgah in a fragmentary style to share with the reader the electrifying bedlam and emotion that accompanies international backpacking. The title refers to a term in Persian classical music: ‘dastgah’ is complex, labyrinthine, fluid. But overall, too much happens too quickly. The subtitle of this genre-straddling debut is diary of a headtrip, and is an apt description for the jarring experience, for author and reader alike. Perhaps we can look forward to his next work, a novel being completed as a M.A. in Writing, where Mordue’s exceptional talent for introspection and description might be more coherently realised.
Sam Cooney is a writer, dedicated to fiction. Born and bred in Melbourne, he has also published literature and arts reviews, as well as a range of articles. Sam is proud to be a small part of the Australian reading and writing community.