Dispatches from around the world

A reporter's collection of reworked columns and sketches
Dispatches from around the world
Dispatches from around the world

Craig Copetas signals his veteran, fearless, inquiring reporter status from the first sentence of his introduction. This collection of reworked columns and sketches includes snippets from the life of a lady Italian detective, from the life and death of a risk-taking air racing pilot, corporate chieftains who lead secret lives as Le Mans racers, a discursion on the cookies of Basra, and the politics of bespoke ham.

For Indian readers, though, the first paragraph might set off alarm bells. Copetas meets a professional letter writer called &ldquoRagu&rdquo Menon &mdash Ragu as in the Italian sauce, not Raghu &mdash who operates out of a street I can&rsquot find on a map of Bombay, called &ldquoJamnal al Rajaj Road&rdquo. These are minor errors, and they don&rsquot affect the point of the story but it&rsquos not conducive to building trust.

The problem with Mona Lisa&rsquos Pajamas is well illustrated by the sketch of that title. It&rsquos about the issues surrounding Da Vinci&rsquos most famous painting &mdash should it be cleaned (yes), is it being secretly restored away from the public gaze (no), is the image over-commercialised (duh). The pajamas are among the many things the image of La Gioconda is used to sell, but they don&rsquot have a central part in the story &mdash all they provide is a catchy title that leads nowhere. Too many columns here, especially the series tracking the politics of building golf courses and the minds of those who play on them, are ephemeral, written for the moment rather than for posterity.

As with all collections of columns, there&rsquos good stuff in here too, and Copetas&rsquo ability to sniff out the unusual and quotidian does offer a decent read every 20 pages or so. His examination of rare book dealers in Vatican City is masterly and the account of the Hoxha sliding championships (which requires an empty plastic Pepsi bottle and a co-operative cow of placid disposition to act as a speed-breaker) is hilarious. These are stories that would delight the average newspaper reader, and there&rsquos the problem.

One of the few column collections to have weathered the test of time is the Wall Street Journal &rsquos anthology of snapshot-pieces by its band of roving reporters. The multiplicity of voices and perspectives and the neat categories &mdash leisure, business, gourmandry, travel &mdash made that book a collection to preserve.

What Copetas has to offer is the equivalent of the globetrotter&rsquos Picasa album keyed to Google Maps &mdash an incredibly rich range of places and experiences, an enviable traveller&rsquos resume. You&rsquod love to talk to this man about the time he spent with Greek sponge divers or the plastic surgeon who does tummy tucks on insecure businessmen, but the operative word there is &lsquotalk&rsquo. Too many of these columns were written for the moment, and it shows. He has catchy headlines, the classic opening line that &lsquohooks&rsquo you into the story, and sadly, that&rsquos about it. This is high-grade perishable writing, already moving past its sell-by date, something like the intense but ultimately ephemeral letters that Copetas&rsquo friend, Ragu/Raghu, churns out in his tiny corner of Bombay.

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