Posts Tagged ‘Sylvain Tesson’

Tourism, Travel and Exploration

July 6, 2014

If you visit my blog regularly, you’ll have realised I’m very interested in writing about travel. I have been doing some thinking about what has changed about our exploration of our world over the years.

I suspect that nowadays most of us are tourists. Our journey has a set timeframe, a set destination, the travelling to and from is organised in advance, as is where we stay whilst away from home. We often take guidebooks and even phrasebooks. Even in distant, ‘exotic’ places we can be safe and comfortable. One of the things which concerns me about all this is the effects we can have on the lives and the economies of people in distant lands; thinking  ‘well, we are putting money into the local economy’ isn’t necessarily the end of it.

Travelling seems different. We may not set off for a specific amount of time, or have a set destination; we will probably organise travel ourselves ad hoc, and similarly accommodation. I think of my summers hitch-hiking in my student days. There are some unknowns and unpredicatables about this sort of journey, but we have maps, routes and nowadays all kinds of technology to help us. I find travelling harder to define, as I think about writers who come to mind who have set off for considerable lengths of time on arduous journeys well off the beaten track, and yet haven’t completely gone into the unknown… Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming in the 1930s travelling in Central Asia at times of great political unrest, Wilfred Thesiger crossing the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Michael Asher in the Sudan, Sylvain Tesson in Siberia recently. Such people never actually go off the edges of the map, as it were, into the places that used to be labelled ‘here be dragons’ but they do go where we are, even now, extremely unlikely ever to go, and they are definitely tested by their experiences.

And then there’s exploration… new and undiscovered territory, though even here, there’s the necessary caveat, undiscovered by Western/ white people. Such journeys involve creating the first maps and charts of places, sometimes collecting specimens of previously unknown flora and fauna. Serious risks and dangers are involved here, from people, places, nature and the weather; in the past, before navigational aids were invented, one could become lost, or not be able to know where one was. And still they went. Scott to the Antarctic, the circumnavigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ibn Battutah on land much earlier, the nineteenth century explorers of Australia trying to find the huge inland sea that was believed to lie in the centre of that continent. To my mind, there’s nowhere left now for this kind of exploration; everywhere is ‘discovered’ if not completely known, and everywhere is accessible with today’s technology. The final frontier, in Captain Kirk’s words, is space. I’ll never read about that exploration.

So, I’ve drawn up a rather simplistic taxonomy of journeys. And I suspect many of us would prefer to be thought of as travelling rather than as mere tourists, with the pejorative connotations of that word. But why do we go ‘away’? Why do you go away? For me, I think it is the change and challenge of being somewhere different, of seeing and experiencing things done in a different way, even the basic business of speaking; it is seeing the wonders of different places and cultures and being taken out of my insularity, it is realising how marvellously diverse our world is.


Literature in translation

April 7, 2014

I wish I were able to read literature in more than two languages (English and French), but none of my other efforts at learning languages have been good enough so far. I do have a major issue with what I have to call English language imperialism: the idea that there is so much already available writing in English from English-speaking countries, such as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and so on, that we don’t need to bother with translating writers from other languages… as if nothing worthwhile were being written in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and I don’t know what else. This reminds me of how few films from other countries make it as far as being subtitled and then shown in English cinemas or on TV.

From my limited experience, I have found that much of what is being written in other languages is rather more interesting, challenging and relevant – I will develop this idea in a future post – and English readers are missing out on an awful lot of great literature. I always browse bookshops whenever I’m in France, and I look when I’m in Germany: most contemporary and classic English and American literature has been translated and is available, at reasonable paperback prices (another issue there!) and there is a huge amount of writing from many other countries that has been translated into French or German, of which I’ve never heard, and which never makes its way into English bookshops. My already groaning ‘waiting to read’ shelf always gains a few more inches after a visit to France.

I went back through my reading log: so far this year seven out of the twenty books I’ve read were not originally written in English, and last year, 40 out of the 107 books read were translations, or written in French. And it does seem weird that if I want to read an interesting new Polish novel, I’ll have to read it in French… Currently I’m reading Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican, who has been translated into English.

So, what is going on? Are we simply short of translators from other languages into English? Given the catastrophic decline in the study of foreign languages in this country (only between five and six thousand A Level MFL candidates in the country last year?) perhaps this has something to do with it. Is it that translations do not have the necessary commercial potential in this bean-counting country? But then, surely, a good Russian novel translated into English has a far greater potential readership world-wide than the same novel translated into French or German?

What wouldn’t I have been able to read without my French? Many of Ismail Kadare‘s novels (Albania); much of Milan Kundera‘s criticism (Czech Republic); Agota Kristov‘s bizarre novels (Romania); many of Amin Maalouf‘s novels, and his history (Lebanon); Eric Emmanuel Schmitt‘s challenging alternative future about Hitler (France); some of Naguib Mahfouz‘ fiction (Egypt); Ella Maillart‘s travel writing was mostly originally published in English but is now only available in French translation (!); most of Sylvain Tesson‘s travel writing remains only in French, as does that of Bernard Ollivier and AnneMarie Schwarzenbach (Switzerland)…

However, I already have enough books waiting to be read, so perhaps none of this really matters. And yet, I’d hate to be missing something out there…

Sylvain Tesson

October 2, 2013

417VGbQN-wL._AA160_I came across this French traveller and writer a couple of years ago, and I’m still trying to decide what to make of him. I can’t really class him as an explorer, because I don’t really think there are any of these nowadays, with travel generally being so straightforward compared with long ago (sweeping statement, I know, but this is my blog), so maybe ‘extreme traveller’ would fit the bill. He goes to faraway places, and spends a long time there, with a purpose, and endures considerable, though self-chosen, hardships, and then writes about them, very well.

L’Axe du Loup hasn’t been translated into English. I had to read it, because Tesson was fascinated with the book The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, which claims to be an account of an escape from a Siberian gulag by a group of Polish prisoners during the Second World War, and how they trekked to freedom south through Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and Nepal to India. I say claimed, because much recent research has thrown doubt on Rawicz’ story, and it seems more likely to have been a composite account of what many prisoners went through at the time, and certainly to have been possible, though not actually achieved by the man himself. See wikipedia for details. Tesson decided to try and make the journey himself, on foot, carrying everything with him. It’s a fascinating and gruelling journey; he’s well aware that he’s chosen to make the journey and can opt out at any moment, that he doesn’t have to beware of everyone he meets lest they send him back to the gulag, that he can stop and rest, and that he can carry food with him. He makes the journey, and demonstrates that it could have been done; his descriptions of the route and his encounters are very interesting. Sadly (and I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record) the maps are poorly drawn.

Tesson is clearly fascinated by Siberia: Dans les forets de Siberie has been translated into English and is well worth the time and effort. He decides to spend six months (February to July) in a small, isolated cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, and this is his diary of his time there. In some ways it’s a retreat and journey of self-discovery – can he cope? He does visit people and is visited, too; he has ample supplies of food and can supplement them with fish, and he has an inexhaustible supply of vodka and cigars, as well as reading matter. The observations of the seasonal changes are well described, and the peace and tranquillity seem very welcoming, though clearly considerable inner resources are needed to cope with such isolation, but he does talk of returning. He is a person who clearly find our hectic society of noise and continuous consumption unbearable, and I have a lot of sympathy here; his reflections are worth reading.

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