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#266: Sutcliff: ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? A review by Bob Corbett

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?  By William Sutcliffe.  London:  Penguin, 1998.  
	ISBN:  0-140-27265-8

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 1999

Cynical 19 year old David goes to India with his best friend's lover, 
Liz.  David is cynical, uninterested in the Third World and simply 
wanting to survive this experience, which is seen as de rigor in his 
circle of friends.  David spends much of his three months in India 
running from one end of the country to the other, hating it, trying to 
bed down Liz, and denouncing any positivity or altruism in the words and 
experiences of any others.  In the process author David Sutcliffe spins a 
hilarious tale of both exaggeration and devastating accuracy and he mocks 
the relationship of the first worlders to the third world.

This book, seemingly about India, becomes the second book about the same 
theme which is in my Haiti library.  The other is Dominique Lapierre's 
THE CITY OF JOY.  The two books couldn't be more different.  Lapierre's 
book celebrates the heroism and superiority of his Western character, who 
nearly single handedly saves a huge slum area.  Sutcliffe calls the 
Westerners to the carpet, mocking their insincerity, hypocrisy and 
stupidity.  Yet both books deal with the Westerners who escape to the 
Third World, India in this case, for whatever reason.

>From 1983-92 I lead and sponsored may "work / experience trips to Haiti, 
trips in which more than 500 people participated.  Many were university 
or high school students going to Haiti to offer service work and to 
experience this particular third world country.  Unlike the characters in 
Sutcliffe's novel, I like to think that my visitors were more prepared.  
Before going we learned some history, culture, social expectations, even 
bits of language, in an effort to attempt to blend it a bit.  Yet, 
despite my training seminars and the often deep sincerity and effort on 
the part of the trip members, we often never rose much above the bungling 
"ugly Americanism" of Sutcliffe's British subjects.  We, and I 
reluctantly include myself in this "we," complained, were shocked, 
afraid, aloof and often couldn't wait to get out of Haiti and back to the 
comforts and familiar scenes of home.

The cultural gulf between middle America and the poor of Haiti is a 
gigantic gulf, not easily bridged in the best of circumstances and 

Yet the very last scene of the Sutcliffe novel was also painful and 
familiar.  David has made it home, "survived" his ordeal, and even 
learned some important things almost despite himself.  He wants to share 
this huge revelation, this entire new universe with his mother, but there 
is no real interest on her part to hear it, and no real ability on his 
part to convey it all.  The best he really could have done would have 
been to hand her Sutcliffe's novel!  It might have been a nice ending.

In the days of my group trips to Haiti I always invited the members to 
write journals of their experiences and to share them with me.  I used to 
regularly publish bits and pieces of these journals in STRETCH magazine.  
I remember several frustrated journalist complaining that they returned 
home, feeling completely changed, having had what they assumed was a 
life-changing experience and enlightenment.  (How long this change and 
light lasted is another issue.)  Yet, they often were totally frustrated 
by the disinterest of family and friends in hearing much about all this.  
What people wanted to hear was:  "So how was your trip?"  "Oh, 
fantastic!  I learned so much and give of myself and was deeply moved and 
challenged."  End of what was people wanted to hear.  Saying much more 
brought that staring off into the distance of people bored with stories 
of another's travels.

Many groups such as the one's I led go to Haiti.  Some go to "missions" 
in the countryside and build school or churches.  Others, like my groups, 
tend to stay around Port-au-Prince and do service work for the needy in 
places like the homes of the Missionary of Charity Sisters or Ecole St. 
Vincent.  Two of my thirty some groups were Webster University student 
trips and these people mixed service work with less formal "experiences" 
of the country.  The characters in Sutcliffe's novel are more like 
European backpackers, it just happens they are in India.  Drugs were on 
universal attraction, so was sex.  The other just seemed to be so see 
just how many sites one could tick off and how much exoticism on could 
fit it, bitching and bragging about the experiences in turn.

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? will not be a pleasant read for everyone.  It is 
very cynical, even bitter.  It is extremely non politically correct.  It 
will offend many.  I found it utterly hilarious and pointed.  I found 
myself both laughing at the craziness of the experiences, thinking how 
stupid and absurd the characters were, yet knowing, even as I tried to 
deny it and duck it, that these characters were not much different from 
me, if at all.   My primary experience of a third world country is 
certainly Haiti where I've been more than forty times in the past 16 
years.  This novel is about India.  I had a very difficult time 
remembering that.  The bus rides, experiences of the beggars, fear of the 
unknown and difference, the physical hardships of everyday life, the 
proneness to and fear of illness, the frequent diarrhea and other 
travelers difficulties, these and many more such details, made India fade 
away and had me mixing my Haiti with David's India in such a way that 
Asia and the Caribbean seemed more alike than different.

I recommend ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? with caution.  One needs to be able to 
laugh at oneself, and be willing to recognize and accept some 
contradictions between who we might want to be and who we often are.  One 
needs to be able to read about politically incorrect people fumbling 
along, and willing to laugh at their absurdities and stupidities even as 
one uncomfortably recognizes how close to home the descriptions are.  
Within those cautions, William Sutcliffe offers an insightful and very 
very funny novel. 


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