Posts Tagged ‘travel writing’

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

Advertisements

Colin Thubron: Mirror to Damascus

December 21, 2016

517pyetfy1l-_ac_us160_This is a lovely book, by a true traveller who clearly lived in Damascus for a serious length of time and fell in love with the place. I’d never heard of it before, found it in a secondhand bookshop in the summer and felt I wanted to read something about this country that has been tearing itself apart for the last few years… it seems to have been Thubron’s first book, published in 1967. It has beautifully-drawn maps which are nevertheless not quite as informative as they look, and quite a lot of blurry black and white photographs.

Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and Thubron takes us through its history, episode by episode, epoch by epoch, linking us to significant places and describing them in detail, often lyrically: we get a picture of a city of great age, rambling and ramshackle, home to many different tribes and peoples, full of historic remains from many different centuries, and cultures. There is a Roman Damascus, a Jewish one, a Christian one, a Muslim one, an Ottoman one, a French one…

To Thubron, the people are friendly, welcoming, curious; he wanders far and wide, seeking out places he has heard of, remains he’s interested in, sometimes finding and sometimes not, observing and reporting with an open mind, non-judgemental, talking with anyone who will speak with him: an ideal traveller. There’s also a fascinating chapter about the many travellers who have visited the city through the ages…

I’m not aware that Damascus has been quite so comprehensively wrecked as Aleppo or Homs in the current conflict, but have found myself wondering how much of this lovely place that he visited fifty years ago still exists. The chapter on the French Damascus reminds one just how much responsibility the West bears for the unspeakable horrors that are going on in Syria and other Middle Eastern lands, and underlines for me that it would be far better if we just left other nations to sort out their own internal affairs. Thubron’s book manages to capture some of the relative peace and innocence of earlier days, and I really enjoyed it.

Joseph Roth: Croquis de Voyage

November 6, 2016

downloadJoseph Roth wrote two of my favourite novels, The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March, to which I shall be returning shortly, prompted by my reading of this collection of travel pieces. I find the nineteen-twenties fascinating, as a world trying to recover from the trauma of the Great War, and unaware of the morass it is slowly sinking into.

As a traveller and journalist – nearly all of the pieces in this collection were written for various German newspapers and magazines – he is very observant, missing nothing, and also unintrusive: I have the feeling of being with a very intelligent observer and recorder who does not seek to over-interpret.

There is a wide range of pieces in the book; perhaps the most powerful for me was his visit to the Somme region in 1926, so only eight years after the end of the war, and his descriptions of how towns are still struggling to recover their previous ‘normality’ are quite shocking, in a low-key way. I also liked his descriptions of Deauville, and Provence, both places I’m familiar with.

There are a good number of pieces from travels around the Soviet Union in the same years, so before Stalin’s purges and terror: these are fascinating because he shows us the hope and optimism of those early years before the aims and direction of the Revolution were permanently perverted. And yet, with hindsight, it’s also evident how much he doesn’t see, or know to look for…

His picture of Poland in the years of the Second Republic, a nation reborn after more than a century of extinction, is also very enlightening: it’s a naive country in which Roth can quite clearly see the problems inherent in a state with so many national minorities, and which Hitler and Stalin would both take advantage of…

Italy is already Mussolini’s fascist state in embryo and quite scary when he visits; there is no hint of the horrors to come in Germany, however.

I’ve written before about how accounts written at a particular time are capable of being illuminating in ways totally different from history books, and this is a very good example; I fear, however, that it’s too much to hope that this collection will appear in an English translation.

Jan Morris: Coast to Coast

June 5, 2015

9780571241774This is a fascinating, and well-written account of a road trip around the USA in the 1960s. A helpful map helps non-natives work out roughly the route taken, as well as putting the size of the country in perspective.

Morris, in a recent foreword to a re-issue of the book, notes that she travelled at a time when the US was probably at its happiest and perhaps its most confident: certainly that feeling emerges from its pages, along with all the aspects of the US that would strike a British observer or traveller as most distinctive and notable, drive-ins and instant coffee among them. The whole book is really a trip back in time. Her language is very descriptive, evoking a clear picture of the places she visited, and certainly (almost) persuaded this non-visitor that I’d actually probably quite like to go there…

Certain aspects shock a twenty-first century reader – the crude, overt and offensive racism of the times probably most of all, and the moment where the prospect (in the early 1960s) of a negro (sic) in the White House is mentioned as possibly the ultimate shame, fair took my breath away…

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome

February 11, 2015

51Ye+XnR8TL._AA160_At some point reasonably soon, I intend to go and explore Rome seriously, so when I came across this in a secondhand bookshop, and because it’s in the generally reliable Penguin Travel Library, I thought it might be worth a read. I suppose it was…

It wasn’t really what I expected, though. The writer clearly has a great feel, and enthusiasm for Rome: she writes about a three-month stay at some point in the 1950s. What was good was the maps, which seem to be a useful help to negotiating some of the main antiquities in a helpful and sensible way, and her thoughts and reactions to much of ancient Rome, which is the part that interests me most, from my studies of Ancient History at school…

But, in the end, it’s a ‘me, me’ travel book, I felt, much more about her and her feelings about Rome than the place itself, and far less about the city itself; there’s a lot of emoting about the place, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of vagueness that in the end is lost on someone not familiar with the city: you have to know the city as well as the writer fully to appreciate her portrait of it.

So, ultimately moderately disappointing, although she hasn’t in any way weakened my resolve to spend time there.

%d bloggers like this: