Karl Pilkington isn’t as pretty as Eric Newby and he isn’t exactly in the Michael Palin league of world travellers (not unless Palin suddenly decides to start traversing the globe as a Mr Gumby character). But neither is Karl as gormless as he appears (I think anyway). He seems to have carved out his own unique niche in the crowded marketplace of travel books, that of a sort of magical misery tour encompassing all of the tedium, awkwardness and ennui that accompanies even visiting the seven wonders of the world. It is clear throughout an Idiot Abroad that Karl would much rather be stuck in his strange comfort zone, eating Monster Munches in Manchester instead of scaling the peaks of Machu Picchu, but fair play to the lad, he sticks at his task as grimly as only a mad Mancy in full flight can and we the readers are rewarded with some hilarious insights and anecdotes as a result. Whether he is waxing lyrical on whether Brazilians wax their coconuts or why Indians should spend less time of finding themselves spiritually and more on fixing their chaotic road system; pans don’t get much deader than this and Karl’s writing will have you in stitches or wincing in wonder at his wit. The travelogue is also nicely juxtaposed with transcripts of texts and phone calls between Karl and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, with Ricky in particular seeming to take an almost sadistic delight in the uncomfortable travails he is putting his mate through. You will learn and laugh through this book and you can’t ask for much more than that. Good moaning to you Karl and may there be many more to come.
So I watched bits of a couple of episodes of the An Idiot Abroad TV series but never really enjoyed it. I couldn't quite work out if Karl Pilkington really was as dopily parochial as he seemed or if it was put on, either way the series seemed exploitative and designed to make its viewers cringe.
I bought the book (in Kindle format) because: a. it was on offer, b. there was at least a little honest entertainment value to the TV series, and c. because I wondered whether the book might shed a little light on KP.
Well it's not too bad. As a travel diary it is a bit useless: the series was never really about travel, rather about putting a small-minded little-Englander into discomfiting situations and laughing at his attempts to deal with the culture-shock. This is somewhat reflected in the book, albeit in not quite so extreme a way. It does read rather like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in that respect, with Karl playing the part of Arthur Dent (Gervaise and Merchant, as Zaphod Beeblebrox and Ford Prefect respectively don't figure in the book very much at all, thank goodness).
Actually, I found Pilkington's stream of consciousness description of his trips to India, Peru, Mexico, Jordan and so on to be a quite entertaining read: mildly humorous with a few laugh-out-loud moments. And instead of the slightly retarded, handbag-clutching clown from the TV series, Pilkington comes across far better in the book. Still a little-Englander, to be sure, still very much out of his depth in the face of camp carnival goers and Amazonian savages but willing to try out new experiences and then take a naiive, sideways glance at them. Indeed, on the telly he seems to make quite ridiculously stupid statements (e.g. about how Chinese people don't age well) but, reading them in the book (perhaps it's having the time to think about what he's saying) many of these inanities have their own, slightly twisted, left-field sort of logic to them. So it's that naiive, slightly grumpy, off-kilter view of the world that gives the book a certain charm.
I am still unsure as to whether the Pilkington persona is manufactured by him (and Gervaise and Merchant) or genuine (or a bit of both) but at least it's not as extreme her as in the series and if you can look past that this is a perfectly acceptable bit of humourous travel writing - not quite Bill Bryson, but enjoyable none-the-less.
The book includes a number of rather nice colour photos of KP and his travels. These don't fare very well in Kindle format, I'm afraid, but I have been reading the book on my Tablet where they show up rather nicely.
"I did some yoga with a baba. He laughed because I couldn't stretch as well as he could. It was hardly surprising really as he was stark b0ll0ck naked apart from a pair of shades, while I was wearing combat pants with the pockets stuffed full of toffees I'd taken from the first-class lounge at the airport. The guide said if I gave him some more money he would show me more. I don't know what more there was to see from this fella. The way he was bending upside down in my face I could have checked his prostate gland."