Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Summer/Autumn 2005

Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip by Mark Mordue

Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip
Mark Mordue
Hawthorne Books
Portland, Oregon
Trade paperback, 309 pp., $15.95
(Review by Amy Andrews)  

Like a dastgah (Iranian music in which “numerous segments can be connected melodically or modally”), Mark Mordue’s Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip is an incredible blend of impressions, observations, storytelling, memoir, and poetry that chronicles his trip around the world. Beyond the typical travel-diary accounting of famous landmarks, museums, and tourist traps, Mordue’s recording of events reflects the big picture—daily life in whatever town or city he’s in, often within a clear geopolitical frame of reference that anchors the narrative.

Journalist Mark Mordue left his native Australia with his girlfriend Lisa Nicol in 1998, and Dastgah is a dynamic record of his physical and mental journey through India, Nepal, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, Iran, and the United States. It’s at times funny, poignant, frightening, and educational; in Dastgah’s pages readers are treated to an eclectic fusion of history, travelogue, philosophy, and poetry. Loosely organized by chapter/city and descriptive sub-headings, it’s as easy to read straight through as it is for readers to browse and reflect on favorite passages.

Writers have a saying, “Show, don’t tell,” and that’s exactly what Mordue does, using his observations and thoughtful commentary to recreate vivid experiences sure to satisfy the armchair traveler. When in Nepal, the bus he’s traveling in is stopped in a “chakka jam”—villagers seeking restitution by blocking the road after a pedestrian has been killed, the body still lying in the road, covered by a towel. Mordue observes that the villagers clearly want the travelers to see what has happened, a stark contrast to what he and we are likely to be more familiar with—the quick and efficient clearing away of accident wreckage, as much out of public sight as possible.

From his walking tour of Cimitière du Père Lachaise in Paris, the final resting place of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde among many others, to crashing a Rolling Stones after-concert party in Turkey, Mordue’s writing style is intimate and bare, never just re-telling a tale but taking the reader along for the ride. His short vignettes share more clearly than any ethnographic description in a traditional travel guide the day-to-day life in places most of us will probably never get the opportunity to see: who drinks coffee in Tehran and why; the unexpected sight of a Nepalese woman’s face when her shawl slips out of place; what to say when running into Patti Smith in a grocery store; thoughts on taking a rickshaw in Calcutta.

Throughout Dastgah, Mordue’s relationship with his girlfriend Lisa is like watching a shadow play, the blurred outline of their affection all the more visible because of other events happening simultaneously. As they travel together and then diverge in their paths, unexpectedly reuniting and then parting again, Mordue’s ruminations about their relationship— anything from letting people assume that they’re married to reflections on sitting with Lisa, the only woman on a bus full of men—take on added seriousness. The ephemeral presence of their relationship in comparison to many of their travel experiences in no way obscures Mordue’s devotion. The lyrical way in which he describes lying next to Lisa—“And I rolled over in the bed just to feel you and make a lover’s question mark as I shaped myself into your body”— is enough to make a girl swoon.

The fluid style of Mordue’s prose reflects the relative ease of movement in a pre-9/11 world. Coupled with the fact that Mordue is Australian (and quite fluent in the international vernacular of soccer), Dastgah conveys an innocence that I’m not sure would be there had the trip taken place more recently. Rich with love, death, spirituality, and life, the book has a vitality and maturity that’s rare. Dastgah was first published in 2001 in Australia and New Zealand. Hawthorne Books wisely decided to publish it in its original form in the United States, complete with the original acknowledgements; to have changed a word would have deprived readers of an amazing book.

– AA –