Dervla Murphy: Silverland

December 15, 2013

41cnQwDQlkL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_My mother and I both enjoy travel writing, and often swap books we’ve read. She has been urging me for a long time to read some Dervla Murphy, and, seduced by the prospect of reading some more about Siberia (of which I never tire), I finally gave in.

Murphy is another solo female traveller, in the vein of Ella Maillart, of whom I’ve written before. Murphy is now rather older, and also a more recent traveller, so there is rather less unexplored territory to visit, but she does make real efforts to leave the beaten track, sometimes to her cost. She is genuinely interested in the places she visits and the people she encounters, and inclues plenty of background information to help the reader orient her/himself. She’s also very political, which is rather unusual in travel writers, at least those I’ve read. Nothing escapes her sharp, questioning mind, and she will digress for several pages on the political and social implications of something she has come across. Only very occasionally is this tiresome; usually it further enlightens her travels and writing.

She travels on slow trains – not the tourists’ Transsiberian railway, but the later BAM (Baikal-Amur Magistral, if you wanted to know), sections of which run parallel to, but further north than, the more well-known and older Transsib. She appreciates the beauty of much of Siberia, especially Lake Baikal, but she is also saddened by the waste and environmental degradation which has gone on for decades, under the Soviets to whom economic and industrial progress (?) was the most important thing, and even more so in the present, capitalist (?) times, where profit, and the fast buck are everything.

She can see the superficial attractiveness of the new, Western freedoms(?) to Russians whose lives were limited for so many years under state socialism, and she can see beyond this to the catastrophic effect this is having on the country and its peoples; it’s clearly a stage the country has to go through before its people may perhaps see that there are other things that are more important… the more one looks, the more one is conscious of the difference between freedom from and freedom to, and how we are all manipulated by capitalist and Western hegemony.

I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that she writes political polemic: she doesn’t, but she’s aware of the complexity of everything; she loves the places and the people and describes them sympathetically, and enables us to have a window onto places we can probably never visit, and lives that are very different from ours. A real traveller, then, and no tourist.

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