Fantastic Voyages Essay, Research Paper
Fantastic voyages Picador Book of Journeys ed Robyn Davidson 528pp, Picador The Madagascans have some unusual funerary practices, the like of which are rarely seen in your local cemetery. Grandfather having expired and been interred inside a wooden box shaped like a canoe with a lid on, his memory is kept alive by a simple and moving ceremony in which he is taken out, has his bandages changed and is given a glass of rum. The dead are never absolutely dead in Madagascar, and this gives great comfort to the living. Likewise, travel writing is often reported to be deceased, but the corpse keeps walking off to have a glass of rum and generally enliven literary encounters with good measures of true tales and tall ones. The sheer joie de vivre of this lifeless old has-been is staggering, from Homer through Marco Polo and on to the modern day: witness Redmond O’Hanlon upriver in Borneo, Stanley Stewart beset by China’s female railway workers or Robert Carver in the mountains of Albania. But you will not get any of these later examples in Robyn Davidson’s anthology, and the reasons for this are interesting. “Shortly after its publication in 1980 I was surprised to learn that I had written a travel book,” she writes in her introduction, referring to her expedition across Australia by camel. “I knew nothing about literary genres then, but I felt an instinctive recoil, as if my intentions had been misunderstood.” The fey innocence may be unconvincing, but the sentiment is understandable. Travel writing – a miserable name to start with – is often derided as a lesser weapon in the literary armoury. No doubt those lame attempts at the genre – By Pogo to Togo, and suchlike – didn’t help, but let’s not forget the collateral damage inflicted by “real” writers. Dickens’s American Notes and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley spring to mind. Novelists busking their way through a bit of journey-making to bolster a dwindling stock of creativity have not added much lustre to the genre. But whatever the reasons, some would say decadence is upon us. Davidson obviously buys in to this, and her solution is to go the way of the bereaved Madagascan: start digging. Her collection is largely composed of decomposed authors, and though they rise off the page as readily as a Malagasy corpse coming up for a tot, most are very far from our normal idea of a travel writer. We get Hector Berlioz loading his pistols before boarding a stagecoach, Kafka distastefully observing Swedish nudism, and Buñuel listing favourite bars and tipples (the best dry martini, he suggests, is made by “allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin”). The reasoning is that we have been misled by the modern travel writers, with their backroom teams of holiday and resort promoters, and most of all by the artificial divisions of bookshop layouts. There’s a huge dollop of truth in this, ignoring the fact that every other travel writer could make Davidson’s claim to have been misrepresented. Where the anthology falls down is in considering that we must dig up corpses to prove the fact. After all, many recent publications not shelved under travel have thrown up sterling journeys: Michael Asher on T E Lawrence’s track across Sinai, Wade Davis getting to grips with the voodoo herbalists and zombies in Haiti. Likewise, supposedly mainstream travel books are merging with historical inquiry, investigative journalism and popular science. The boundaries are fuzzier than ever before, and it’s high time bookshops realised the fact. Let’s not quibble over the reasoning, however, when we get such delights as Simone de Beauvoir strolling around Harlem (we do not learn when; the dearth of biographi cal information is lamentable) and on the next page Martin Luther King writing from jail in Alabama. These are people writing about journeys, or at least planning them, and they are not those whom we normally associate with travel: Vincent van Gogh seeing pictures in Provence, Dostoyevsky avoiding conversation on Russian trains, Katherine Mansfield depressed in Italy. Sometimes this works superbly, but not always: an unfortunate side effect of choosing so many accidental travellers is that they often don’t especially care for travel or where they are going. Ironically, considering the introduction, the best and most observant writing comes from the few “travel writers” who elbow their way in here – Naipaul, Chatwin, Mackintosh-Smith, Thesiger. The links and juxtapositions are wonderful. We encounter Nadezhda Mandelstam heading off to internal exile on Stalin’s orders, then Bruce Chatwin meeting her as an old woman, chain-smoking and stuffing her wayward breasts back inside her nightie. She asks him to rearrange a picture that is askew on the wall, saying: “I threw a book and hit it by mistake. A disgusting book by an Australian woman.” The humour is a relief. Laughter is here, but not in the quantities you might hope for. Try Laurence Sterne being tempted by a maid in Paris, Rousseau fighting off pederasts in a Turin hospice for converts, or Tim Mackintosh-Smith tussling with Arabic verbs in the west of Scotland. Most memorable, perhaps, is Joanna Greenfield’s straightforward account of being eaten by a hyena: “I think it was then he took the first piece out of my arm and swallowed it without breathing…” That, surely, is a fate even a travel writer does not deserve.