Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fear and Courage and the Travel Book...

... by which I do not mean Rick Steeves, Fodor's, or The Lonely Planet, and definitely not Baedeker's (someone here must have read Forster). I mean the genre to which I have exhibited periodic episodes of addiction over the years. The cast of characters--Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Rory Stewart, Christina Lamb, Sarah Chayes--comes from a much more colorful background and couldn't give a hoot whether people follow their tracks. In many cases they would prefer for a variety of reasons including safety that people go somewhere else altogether. Unfortunately, their writing has so fixated people on particular places that they become obsessions, which have a tendency of winning out over common sense in the end. If I start posting from Kabul or the Wakhan Corridor, you will know what happened.

After all, travel literature has a fundamentally escapist underpinning. Theroux left London to get away from a very painful divorce. Traveling with his portable kayak through Melanesia from a beginning in New Zealand and Australia seemed likely to readjust his perspective. Chatwin lived a notoriously impulsive live open to everything from bisexuality to Greek Orthodox monasticism with a little African post-colonialism and Australian Aboriginalism thrown in for good or ill. Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush ties Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania for best or at least most sarcastic title. Newby left London with a friend who'd flown in from Rio de Janeiro and wound up in Nuristan, challenged for remoteness in Afghaistan perhaps only by the Wakhan Corridor.

Then come the writers--don't worry, I have no intention of cataloguing the types of travel books, just the ones that have appealed to me--drawn by war or its aftermath. These bear some correspondences to the first group, pun intended, since most of them have worked as journalists at one point or another, though none wrote their books as journalism. Rory Stewart, a former diplomat, harkens back to Newby's diplomat companion; more obviously, his book tells the tale of a very long walk in the western Hindu Kush. He encountered enough danger, including getting shot at by a petty warlord and nearly freezing to death, that the warning of Ismail Khan, the very substantial warlord of Herat, that he not take on the trip and certainly not in winter, looked prophetic or at least shrewd in retrospect.

Lamb and Chayes take diametrically opposed approaches. Lamb moves around the country, between Herat and Kabul; Chayes, after a hair-raising ride in from Quetta, Pakistan, spends most of her time in Kandahar, with the odd run to Kabul, Boston, or Washington. The little people interest Lamb as much as the major players. She titled her book The Sewing Circles of Herat after the underground schools that bucked the Taliban's prohibition of women's education, not Ismail Khan and the Fall and Rise of Medieval Afghanistan. Chayes has an instinct for power paired with not just a nose for but an insistence on integrity. She fixes her book in orbit around the Police Commissioner of Kandahar and follows his subsequent career in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, until his assassination, probably by the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) or their Afghan pawns.

Which brings up perhaps my most important point. Chayes' book The Punishment of Virtue, a play on the name of the Taliban's morality ministry--The Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Punishment of Vice--may not strike some as a travel book at all. When she gets to Kandahar she looks around, as a good travel writer should, but then she moves in, which a travel writer definitely shouldn't. She met the Police Commissioner then, because he didn't think she should move in, either. The single most important thing she does in the book, it gives her a perspective into the life of her hosts that among the other writers mentioned here possibly only Stewart and Chatwin (The Songlines, about Aboriginal central Australia) approach. Like Stewart, she does it in the face of considerable danger.

I promised myself not to write another post on Afghanistan this soon, and in a sense i have only partially broken my promise to myself. I know that nobody will design a radical new course at Duke around the insight that we read travel literature to liberate ourselves from the entrapment of familiarity. That and $2.75 or whatever... Nor does the element of danger hurt an author's sales, necessarily. I do think, though, the people who actually had the courage to do what titillates us both fascinate and frighten us. Fascinate, because of their audacity; frighten, because of our lack of it. We read their books because we know we will never do what they did, or suspect we will not.

In the end, it takes a certain skill on the part of the authors to make sure that we still find them sympathetic by the end of the book. At the end of The Happy Isles of Oceania Theroux, who has risked sounding a bit spoiled while lounging at a Hawaiian golf resort, knows enough not to stop there. The book concludes with Theroux and a local guide paddling with spinner dolphins off the Na' Pali coast of Kauai, than which a more glorious conclusion to a travel book I cannot imagine.

Rory Stewart, on the other hand, closes The Places in Between in tears over the death of his canine companion on the trek, Babur, as a result of misplaced kindness in Pakistan the night before the dog was to fly to his new home in Scotland. After an account in which he had spent a great deal of time revealing as little of himself to some of his hosts along the way as possible, that revelation to us came as both a confirmation of what we had been permitted to see and a glimpse into the fragility of the seam between there and here, the possible and the impossible.

Roland Barthes wrote that "we read because we forget." Perhaps we read travel books because we recognize our fear and want to experience courage, if only vicariously, in a place that resembles our own as little as possible.

1 comment:

  1. As always, you have introduced me to some new writers and some new ways to forget (although I do know Barthes) I loved thinking about Theroux again. I read him as a younger woman when I too was traveling through Europe.I too found him quite full of his own stuff (but I suppose we all are). I used to be jealous of the adventures he took because I lacked the courage to follow or to imagine myself as a woman undertaking the same. As for Afghanistan, keep writing. I need to know your perspective as do your other readers.