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John McCarthy and Brian Keenan are names many will recall from the 1980's. McCarthy was a journalist who was kidnapped and held hostage in the Lebanon, whilst covering the story of hostage Brian Keenan.
Irishman Brian Keenan had been teaching at the American University in Beirut. He was then kidnapped and had been held for a week before John was kidnapped too. After four months had passed in solitary confinement, Brian was placed in a cell with John in an underground prison in Beirut. After their capture in 1986, they were then held hostage for five long years.
In their final year of being held hostage, the two men were given an ancient encyclopedia. They argued about who was getting what part of the world, with John wanting the Caribbean and Brian choosing Patagonia because he wanted to start a Yak farm!
In their tiny cell they only had each other, the encyclopedia and their imaginations as the only means of escapism from their long, dark days of captivity and together they envisaged walking in the Andes and across Patagonia.
Five years after their release, John and Brian travelled together to see if Chile was actually anything like they had imagined during their long days of captivity. 'Between Extremes' is the outcome of their journey. A journey which once again found them both far from home, but the difference this time being that they could live by their own rules.
After reading both these men's books about their experiences being held hostage in the Lebanon, I was keen to read this book, which is described as a travel book, but is also something which is deeply personal to both men. Describing it simply as a travel book isn't enough in my opinion, as it is also the outcome of a story of two very different men who were thrown together in horrific circumstances.
As well as being a travel book this is a testament to a friendship born out of adversity.
The book reads as more of an adventure than an actual travel guide. It contains a lot of humour and what comes across strongly is the friendship between John and Brian. For instance, Brian teasing John about his cycling shorts and also the amount of luggage he has taken with him and suggests maybe they should have visited Tibet to check out the Yaks, then John could have had a sherpa to lug all his gear along.
As I mentioned earlier, John and Brian are two very different men, which anyone who read about their time as hostages will know. This fact comes across once again in this book, as little things get on each other's nerves about each other, but there is an unspoken tolerance between the two, which obviously stems from their time spent in captivity.
Whilst John's ability to always look good and his obsessive planning got on Brian's nerves, it would never become a great issue, in the same way that Brian's snoring and abilty to sleep almost anywhere and at anytime irritates John, but you realise that because of these men's past experiences, it isn't going to cause any real problems. Despite the slight bickering, the two respect and enjoy each other's company. As they themselves stated, they have a friendship 'forged in fire.'
Throughout their journey the two adopt some danger-ridden modes of transport, as well as trekking over the Andes to Argentina on horseback with sheer drops either side and with neither of them having any real experience of horses!
It is all part of what makes the book both interesting and a good read as well as being informative too. There are some beautiful photographs included and it also contains poetry from Pablo Neruda.
I particularly like the way the book is set out, with separate points of view from both men, rather than mingled together, though I did find I had a slight preference for reading John's parts. This did not really surprise me as when I read both men's biographies about their time as hostages, I found I preferred John's account. Here I found his thoughts more entertaining than Brian's, but they were no less interesting all the same. Brian I find, is simply a deeper character than John, but together they seem to be totally compatible.
I think this book may appeal more to those who are familiar with John and Brian's background, but it is nonetheless an interesting read for those who aren't. It simply just touches the reader a little more if you are aware of their past experiences and the circumstances which brought two very different men together. It is a great read and you do get glimpses of the character and strength of spirit of these two men once again, as when there are arguments, what really shines through is the underlying mutual respect and deep bond these men share, which of course is rooted in those dark days where they kept each other alive. At least this time they are controlling their own destiny.
Between Extremes gives you plenty to smile about and the 'extremes' are not just the arduous journey they undertake here, but also the different personalities of John and Brian, which makes for entertaining reading throughout.
And as for the Yak farming dream, I won't spoil it for anyone but there is an outcome to that too even though you have to wait until near the end of the book to find out.
This co-written account of McCarthy and Keenan’s trip to Chile owes its existence to the four years of incarceration that they spent together in the Lebanon. To pass the time, they let their imaginations run riot with all sorts of imponderable projects. One of which was “Would the Yak be a suitable creature to farm in a hostile environment like Patagonia in Chile? – This being despite the fact that they come from China!” Thus the idea of Chile was implanted in them. Using the need to at least see Patagonia for themselves they embarked together on an offbeat and searching tour of Chile. The country is not the only aspect being searched herein. There are frequent and honest accounts of how they each got the other’s nerves. Brian’s snoring and (to John at least) his ability to sleep just about anywhere at any time, proved a major problem. John’s constant planning to the nth degree got Brian’s goat, plus his ability to look like he had just escaped from a Rohan shop’s window after 12 hours on a train. Come to think of it, I snore and my wife is always reading travel guides – what conclusion do I draw from this? Help!! This is not a tour guide in the accepted sense but it will no doubt whet the appetite of many with itchy feet to visit this highly individual country, which at times is only the 30 miles from the Pacific coast to the Argentinean border in width, but 3000 miles long. This alone shows how difficult it was, and still is to govern from Santiago. Try as they might, they find it very difficult to get anyone to talk about the “Pinochet” years, even though democracy is now the order of the day. It’s almost as if the people they meet are adopting a kind of “At least the Fascists got the trains running on time” mentality as was bandied around in Italy at one point after WW2 – even people who had someone in
their family “disappeared” during this era seem reticent to criticise it in full. Particularly in the distant south, where the living is hard, the feeling seems to come through that no matter who’s in charge in Santiago, it doesn’t mean much down here. As part of their intended itinerary, they trek to Argentina on horseback over the Andes, having been forced to admit to little or no experience with horses. Some of the exploits seem foolhardy to a package-holiday man like me, but nonetheless, they make for gripping reading. In fact, throughout their travels their mode of transport ranges from rickety to downright dangerous! I read this book whilst on holiday in Gran Canaria, and somehow, being somewhere with a history of Spanish colonialism heightened the atmosphere of the book for me. A “rattling good” read, which is a laying of ghosts and a validation of a warm friendship for the writers, and a fascinating non-travelogue style insight into Chile for me, and hopefully others, too. The Yaks? Oh yes, they spoke to someone in Patagonia who thought it might be a good idea because Santiago were giving grants for diversification of agriculture, suggesting they speak to the Chinese embassy re importing the beasts!
After long captivity together in Lebanon, these two ex-hostages redefine their friendship in a trip through Chile.