Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Pat Barr: A Curious Life for a Lady

September 26, 2022

     I’ve been fascinated by the Victorian traveller Isabella Bird ever since I came across and really enjoyed the Librivox recordings of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and The Englishwoman in America, both excellent and enjoyable listens. So when I came across this in a second-hand bookshop – not having even known of its existence – I had high hopes of learning more about the intrepid woman. And there are clues to aspects of her life that aren’t written about in her books.

However, the book as a whole was rather disappointing: most of it consists of a rather lifeless summary of all Bird’s actual travel books, with lengthy quotations, but almost completely devoid of the spirit of the woman who actually wrote them. So the book saved me having to read some books which I was warned were rather lengthy and worthy, but it did seem rather a futile endeavour.

Bird travelled mainly for her physical and mental health: while she vegetated in Scotland, various ailments and unhappinesses took over her life; when she travelled she became a different person. Her grim home life and health really did contrast greatly with her happiness and vigour as she travelled, and the curiosity and happiness that comes across in her books. Many of these were derived from detailed letters she wrote to the sister she loved and left at home in Scotland while she was abroad.

Gradually a picture does emerge of Bird, and there were a few more details about the one aspect of her life that had intrigued me, her relationship with the outlaw figure Rocky Mountain Jim, with whom she explored Colorado and about whom she writes in considerable detail; in another world one can almost imagine them as lovers…

Bird wrote well; she stepped out of the narrow gender confines of her age, took astonishing risks for a single woman traveller at any time, survived some hair-raising scrapes, and so necessarily gives a refreshing and open perspective on what she saw as she travelled the world.

I can recommend Isabella Bird as a traveller and writer, but not this account of her life and travels.

Sara Wheeler: Travels in a Thin Country

August 25, 2022

     On a map, Chile does look weird, so long and narrow a country, stretching through desert almost to the Antarctic. And, for those of us of a certain generation, there are the memories of Augusto Pinochet, one of the vilest men on the planet in his day, murdering and torturing in the name of the free market and anti-communism. So I was drawn to what purported to be travels through that country, perhaps in the same way that the writer was. She certainly seems to have had a good time; me not so much. And let’s get my usual gripe out of the way at the start: poor maps. And sizeable sections of the country do not seem to feature in her travelogue at all…

Wheeler exemplifies the issues I have with recent and contemporary travellers: how is it different from tourism – not a lot – and what sort of a picture can they convey of a country? This book is so self-focused it’s hard to put together a real, continuous picture of Chile, although glimpses do emerge from time to time. She is political, and there are regular reminders of the awfulness of the Pinochet era and its effects on the nation and its people, as well as the engineering of that dictatorship by the USA; such things must not be forgotten. I still cannot bring myself to re-read Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits

Wheeler’s account of the Atacama desert, which I was really looking forward to, disappoints. It’s the driest place on the planet and a world centre for astronomy because of its clear skies; it’s a good job I knew that before I read this book. In the end there is a lack of coherent context and background to this picture of Chile; a mishmash of brief nuggets and throwaway references does not suffice, in my opinion. The writer came across as very lucky or privileged to be able to travel freely and widely, with nary a problem or a difficulty, and friends aplenty to jet in and join her whenever she was bored or needed company. I tired of the drinking exploits, too.

So, I felt very deceived by the time I got to the end of this; I was tempted to give up several times. Here was a wealthy and privileged Western tourist gadding about and having a good time, getting a few exotic places ticked off the list. I learned very little about Chile, really; I did have my prejudices about modern travel writing confirmed…

Lea Ypi: Free

July 11, 2022

     I have a rather strange relationship with Albania, and I have never been there. Some forty or more years ago, during the days of would-be socialist nations, I discovered the nightly English propaganda broadcasts on Radio Tirana, which were preceded by the strident call-sign With Pickaxe and Rifle, and always ended with the words, “Goodbye, dear listeners!” followed by a rousing version of the Internationale. The broadcasts were so over-the-top that they caused much amusement. And there was the Albanian Shop, purveyors of propaganda and the party daily from a basement shop in a Covent Garden back street. Then I discovered the astonishing novels of the only Albanian novelist I’m aware of, Ismail Kadare. You will find reviews of some in these pages, if you care to look.

I think I’ve also read some travel writing about the country. So this book, about growing up and coming of age in Albania at the time of the transition from the age of socialism to the age of capitalism, caught my attention, and it’s both an interesting and a disturbing read. It seems to have received many positive reviews, not all from readers who seem to have understood the complexity or the subtlety of what appears to be Lea Ypi’s message.

The first part, which is at times annoying to read as it’s from a child’s perspective and written in the present, describes the last days of the old regime and the demonstrations and transition to something new and different; the second part is after the change and the attempts, in many different ways, to come to terms with it. It is strange to read of a young person and her family discovering ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, learning its ways for the first time and interacting with it, as well as gradually discovering truths which had been concealed in her past, in many ways and for all sorts of reasons… the importance of ‘biography’ which only becomes clear as the author learns about her family’s real past and bourgeois origins.

The weirdness of the country’s isolation is striking, as is the innocence of an 11 year-old and her perspective and the lack of it, from inside the regime. There is a sense of utter confusion as changes begin, there are no anchors, there is no reliability in anything: the craziness is portrayed from within, with a naive yet questioning tone behind it all; there are serious potential consequences if a child is overheard saying the wrong thing. We can see how people within the system came to think, to rationalise and to explain things to themselves, and the compromises they had to make to remain safe. It’s a bizarre, looking-glass world that makes perfect sense when seen only from within, exactly like our own, if you just stop to think about it.

The author’s tragedy is that she, as an 11 year-old, believes in that now crumbling world, in which it seems that the adults were only going through the motions. The consequences of ‘freedom’, ‘shock therapy’ are truly awful; huge numbers try to emigrate. They were heroes when they were fleeing ‘communism’, but fleeing capitalism they are an unwanted nuisance. You see how millions of innocent and naive people were fleeced by capitalist plunderers, taken in and fleeced by spivs because they were naive and gullible; all sorts of Western plagues and diseases – like AIDS – arrive: we see the meaning of ‘freedom’, and its price.

The author is older now, and she reflects on the new, and different, dilemmas those close to her are faced by. Her family are among the hundreds of thousands ruined by various pyramid selling schemes: how were they to know? And then there is a civil war, frightening from a young person’s point of view but which I remember hearing almost nothing about.

It’s a thought-provoking book, a challenging book, which faces us with the two sorts of freedom we are never really aware of here in the rich West, freedom from and freedom to: each has its (very different) price.

Lorca: Aube d’été

June 19, 2022

     I’d never read, or felt particularly moved to read, anything by Lorca until I came across a reference to travel writing; the French publisher Folio has a series of mini-books at 2 euros each, so I decided I’d have a go. Apparently these are some of his very earliest writings, and at times that’s very evident, reminding me frequently of GCSE descriptive writing exercises. If that feels a little harsh, I’ll add that I would have been assessing them at A+ or A*…

Mainly he focuses on southern Spain, and his descriptions, often quite short, are languorous, evocative, effortless as he paints vivid pictures of the humidity and torpor of very hot places. They are like unfinished sketches. He is clearly fascinated by, or attracted to both religious buildings and settings, and places in ruins or decaying.

I did feel a lot like a teacher assessing as I read these pieces; there was lots of promise, flashes of brilliance; at times I felt he was trying too hard, but here was certainly a talent I’d want to encourage. And there were several much more developed and coherent, lengthier pieces that really worked for me.

I also discovered the limitations of translation apps as I read this book; they’re all right for run-of-the-mill, everyday language, but when a writer gets into names of plants, flowers, trees, or more poetic and slightly archaic descriptive language, then they’re pretty useless: both WordReference and Linguee failed completely with this text…

It was worth a 2-euro punt and I’ll be on the lookout for some of his later travel writing.

Edward Abbey: Desert Solitaire

June 13, 2022

     I really enjoyed revisiting this minor classic of travel literature and 1960s hippy days. Abbey is both curmudgeonly (in a nice sort of way) and iconoclastic, too. Here he writes of his time as a national park ranger in the wilds of Utah, occasional encounters with often gormless and exasperating tourists, and the adventures and exploration he was able to undertake alone and with friends whilst in those remote regions. It reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (I think) about his time as a fire-watcher in one of America’s great forests…

Abbey describes really well, conveying atmosphere very effectively, observing all things very closely, and interpreting where he needs to, from a deep knowledge of flora, fauna, geology and geography as well as of the various indigenous American tribes of the region. He revels in isolation, hence his deliberately sought volunteer post out in the back of beyond; he enjoys stillness and silence, his own company and being able to be with his thoughts, all attributes which call to me as well. And he is not afraid of the dangers – animal or natural – which abound in the region. There is a recklessness about him and his activities; he is unfazed by a number of scrapes he gets himself into.

Here is a man who feels at home in the desert and who can share with his readers his heightened awareness and appreciation of the most mundane of things and events. It is very much a masculine world he inhabits, and I suppose what we might today term alpha male activities he indulges in, but it is a text of its time and reflects the attitudes and values of those transitional times. I also found myself considering on what to me came across as specifically American in his experience, that love of wilderness and vast wide open spaces which it’s very difficult to experience here in Europe.

He’s also opinionated, but I enjoyed this, as I suspect most of us do when the opinions coincide or overlap with our own. There are frequent polemics against what he calls industrial tourism, and against the car above all, as a way for people get out into a wilderness but then fail to interact with that environment. Sometimes there are stories unconnected with his park duties or park life that ramble on rather too long, but they were bearable in the end.

An anarchist, hippy, eco-warrior (not that he’d have recognised the term) then; what shines through this book is the beauty of the natural world and his sense of ecstasy in being part of it, and his fearlessness despite the dangers. It’s a really good and uplifting read.

Jan Potocki: Voyages

May 15, 2022

     I bought this because I was planning to re-read his amazing novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and then watch the film; I hadn’t known much about his life or that he was widely travelled, in the years at the end of the eighteenth century when his native Poland was gradually being dismembered and removed from the map of Europe.

Potocki is a careful observer with a good eye for detail and a focus on the exotic (or what would have seemed exotic to a European traveller at the time). The book is extremely well presented with a very detailed commentary and copious annotation, rather like the current Hakluyt Society volumes in the UK. The one thing seriously lacking is maps of any sort, to allow the curious reader to track the traveller’s progress.

It’s a strange mish-mash of places: travel through Holland during a revolution, extensive travels through the then Kingdom of Morocco, travels in Astrakhan, and detailed analysis of why a Russian diplomatic mission to the court of the emperor of China was an utter fiasco. Morocco is closely described, and Potocki seems to avoid Western prejudices against Arabs and Islam. The minutiae of events at a chaotic time in Morocco now seems rather dull and dreary stuff, though.

Descriptions of peoples, places and customs in Astrakhan are rather more interesting; perhaps Potocki was one of the first Westerners to travel there and write a detailed account? He comes over as erudite and a seeker out of knowledge, balanced in his approach, eschewing the racism and bigotry often found in accounts of that time. He’s not only interested in the peoples – and lists and differentiates many of them – but also their languages, and the differences between them: a researcher in the sense we would understand the word.

The piece on the mission to China is fascinating. Potocki is far more aware of the demands of diplomacy, of understanding others and how their approach might differ from his own, of the necessary sensitivities and protocols required in such situations, than are the Russian diplomats he accompanies. They plod woodenly on, it seems, trampling on every sensitivity until the Chinese basically tell them to clear off, that the mission will not be received…

Having said all that, reading the book was something of a chore and I am not going to recommend it to you unless you have similar and quite particular interest as I do. Not a piece of light travel reading for a casual reader.

On choices and prejudices

February 8, 2022

My reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally admitted to gaps in my reading, and to certain preferences – prejudices, even – in what I choose to read.

We all make choices about what we read or don’t read; as I get older, mine are increasingly based on limited time. But that won’t do as an excuse. There are fellow bloggers I follow with interest who only write about women’s fiction, or science fiction, for example; I’ve no way of knowing whether these are deliberate choices or their exclusive reading matter. I write about every book I read; very occasionally, if I’ve re-read a book quite quickly but have nothing to add, I won’t write about it a second time.

So where have all my prejudices and predilections come from?

Science fiction from my childhood, and from my student days, but I read very little of it now, and most of that is re-reading of old favourites. I used to have the run of the Science Fiction Foundation library as a postgrad and wrote reviews for Foundation magazine. My prejudice now, when I reflect, is due to my impression that fantasy has long overwhelmed the market, and I’m not interested in fantasy. Science fiction made me reflect on the world I live in; fantasy is merely escape and doesn’t cut it for me on those grounds.

Travel writing is a relatively recent pleasure, though it’s now fading, ironically, when I can’t do very much of my own. Specifically, I link it to the recommendation by a very helpful bookseller in a shop in Dinan who persuaded me to buy a couple of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart about 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. My prejudices here are about the kind of travel and the traveller: I like travel that borders on exploration, that involves effort and hardship, where the writer observes and reports rather than centring the narrative around themselves – so a lot of more recent stuff doesn’t get a look-in from me. I’m also picky about where: deserts and isolated places are what I most enjoy reading about; South America, the Far East and a lot of Oceania don’t interest me at all. What’s going on here?

English and American literature I studied for my degree; I necessarily met the ‘classics’, a lot of which I liked, many I didn’t. Dickens and Hardy, for example, bored me stiff and I cannot be bothered with them, a statement many will find rather shocking, no doubt. Most stuff written in the eighteenth century, apart from the very earliest novels, I have completely forgotten. And there was a fair amount of very dull American literature. I’m surprised that the student-era reactions have stuck, and I’ve never gone back to such writing. My main feeling was of twentieth century writing in English largely disappearing into self-obsession and triviality, almost as if there was nothing real left to write about; my regular readers will perhaps recall my saying that I found much more meaningful and relevant writing in other languages, all of which apart from French I have to read in translation.

My deep interest in, and exploration of, Eastern European literature is perhaps a positive prejudice and deliberate choice, given my family background: I seek to understand something of my origins, the history of my father’s country, and the troubled and strange choices made by, and forced upon, nations in that part of the world over the last century or so.

Looking back at what I’ve written, there are clearly some pretty lame excuses! There’s a brief, and not very long-lasting sense of regret about some of the lacunae in my reading, but in the end there’s so much out there to read that I will never get to the end of; I sometimes joke that I’m compiling reading lists for my next existence… And when students used to express amazement at how well-read I appeared to be, I disabused them, referring to my age compared with theirs, and telling them about some of the gaps, and prejudices I’ve confessed to earlier.

There was a time – centuries ago – when it was possible for someone to know or be familiar with everything in their field. I’m both humbled and astounded by people like Athanasius Kircher, who some have described as the last man to have known everything in his time, or Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, who wrote the first encyclopaedia, containing all that was known in his time, the seventh century. My translation of his Etymologies has about 400 pages. So, choices are now inevitable. I’ve made mine, or mine have made me. So be it. What about you?

Colin Thubron: The Amur River

December 30, 2021

     A very welcome Christmas present was this latest book from travel veteran Colin Thubron, an arduous journey along the Amur/Heilongjiang river (and tributaries) which forms the disputed frontier between Russia and China. It was a little while before I registered that Thubron was in his eightieth year (!) when he made this lengthy trip: my admiration increased given the evident physical endurance he needed, and the injuries he sustained. And so there still are incredibly remote, unexplored and relatively dangerous places on the planet for intrepid travellers to explore, even though, as we learn, they are inhabited by peoples who have eked out their living there for centuries…

The joy of such a book is being in the company of someone who writes really well: his style is atmospheric, he is knowledgeable, the prose flows almost effortlessly, and Thubron knows how to not intrude, how not to make his narrative me-me-me-look-at me! His curiosity is evident throughout the book, and for me it’s the mark of a seasoned traveller the way he patiently reports casual conversations and encounters without any commentary or judgement, because he’s aware of his relative lack of knowledge. There is room for him to report a personal reaction or feeling to what he sees or hears, but that’s different, as well as separate from his account. This humility and respect on Thubron’s part remains, even if it’s clear or evident that what someone says is wrong, or sounds incorrect. Thus the horrors of the Stalin era and the collectivised past are allowed to stand and speak for themselves. And they do.

One thing which I learned from this journey and these places is the centuries-old distrust bordering on open dislike, even hatred that exists between Russia and China; I did not really know much about this, other than being aware of military skirmishes way back in 1969. We learn about various treaties which moved borders in various directions, the Chinese sense of injustice, and the different native peoples who had been innocently caught up in the greater powers tussles over their ancient homelands…

It comes across in the way he writes, that Thubron is aware that his picture of both Russia and China is necessarily limited: an outsider, try as they might, can never really know what it is like to live permanently as a citizen of another country, which is why careful impressions offered by a seasoned and thoughtful traveller are so interesting. He is open about what he does not see or cannot understand.

The overall picture which emerged for me was of Chinese dynamism and confidence in its new-found place in the world, contrasted with Russian entropy, and its searching for a sense of itself since the disappearance of the Soviet Union. There is much mutual resentment and dislike.

Necessary explanations and contextualisations are carefully woven in as we go along, and the one map is very useful and very carefully drawn and helpfully labelled, and most of the time was a good deal more use than my collection of atlases. I was, however, disappointed to find no photographs included in such a travelogue. It was hard to conceive of the utter remoteness of some of the places he writes about, and he made me want to return to Vladimir Arseniev’s account of the region. It’s a very good read.

Central Asia: Though Writers’ Eyes

October 29, 2021

     If you’ve never done any armchair exploration of Central Asia, then this anthology isn’t a bad place to start. Although the two sketchy maps are inadequate, there is a very good bibliography and pointers to further reading for those who are more curious.

Initially I found the book odd from the conceptual point of view, consisting as it does of a series of chapters focused on key places in the history of the region, but arranged alphabetically. However, the region is comprehensively covered, with a history of each place supplemented by lengthy quotations from the writings of a good number of travellers though the ages. But the main focus of much of the narrative and quotation is the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on the ‘great game’, the rivalry between Russia and Britain as we feared the former’s designs on the jewel of the empire, India. So overall, it feels a little unbalanced. There is a good selection of historical photographs, and I have to say my overall opinion of the book gradually improved as it progressed. Quite a few of the books I felt moved to read at some point turned out to be available as free e-book downloads too, via the Internet Archive, which can’t be bad. I think, in the end though, I’d already read rather too much about Central Asia before coming across this book for it to be very enlightening.

Amin Maalouf: Leo the African

July 13, 2021

     I’d no idea it was so long since I last read this novel, which never ceases to amaze me, because it is a (fictionalised) account of a real life, and I really don’t believe you could make it up.

Jews, Muslims and Christians live reasonably peaceably alongside one another in pre-Reconquista Granada; there is a recap of events leading to the fall of Granada to the Spanish in 1492, and the mayhem which follows for those who are not of the Catholic faith. There is the full vileness of the Inquisition, persecution and the inability of Christians to accept that anyone might be different. Our hero, and narrator, is a Muslim. And though it’s technically a novel, it’s also an autobiography: we cannot have the same expectations of plot as we might have of a completely fictional text; the narrative is linear, but we do grow inevitably attached to people and places.

The narrator and his family leave Granada and settle in Fez; we learn of schooling and lifelong friendships. Eventually he becomes a rich and successful businessman, close to those in power, travels widely and is used on various diplomatic missions by the authorities. His weirdest adventure is his kidnapping by Christians and presentation as a gift to the Pope! Here, his knowledge and skills are put to the service of the incredibly corrupt Church at the time of the Reformation; he is baptised against his will, but escapes being ordained priest before one of his missions. In the end, after years of wanderings, he is able to return to his home and family and live out the remainder of his life in peace as a devout Muslim. I had mis-remembered the plot from my earlier readings, and forgotten how small a section of the novel is his life in Rome at the service of the Pope.

I realised that the narrator’s famous book The Description of Africa is based on his travels all over the north of that continent; when I last read the novel, I had yet to track down that book. Leo travels in the footsteps of his earlier Muslim forbear Ibn Battutah, whose journeys a couple of centuries earlier rivalled those of Marco Polo.

I found the first person narrative effective and convincing. In the back of my mind was always the thought, this stuff is true; the narrative style is that of a devout Muslim, whose faith is at the forefront of his life and deeds (most of the time), and the adventures are almost non-stop. Towards the end of the book, the narrator is at the centre of world-changing events, with the Reformation, the attempts of an incredibly corrupt papacy to consolidate its power and build alliances to secure its future, even if this means joining forces with the Ottomans, and also the various rivalries weakening the Muslim world in those tumultuous years.

Over the years I have come to realise how good a writer Amin Maalouf is. Not only has he written some very good novels, but also a number of very interesting historical and social texts in which he presents thoughtful and powerful analysis of the current state of the world. He has received recognition by being elected to the Académie Française, but that’s all, as far as I’m aware. At the moment, I’m reflecting on what is different about Arabic fiction, thinking of Maalouf, and also Naguib Mahfouz in particular. Maybe it’s my position as an ‘outsider’ to their world, but I’m conscious of a different feel to their novels, one which cannot just be explained by the Muslim background that is omnipresent in a way that Christianity isn’t in Western fiction, for instance. Does anyone out there have any pointers?

%d bloggers like this: