Sunday, December 16, 2007

The fiction in travel writing

Given a chance, a travel writer is capable of misreading entire cultures. But this genre of writing is not journalism, and so the rigorous standards of journalism do not apply. You only have the writer’s piece as proof. Ask anyone what they expect of travel writing and you will receive many answers, but most will demand accuracy and an interesting story. But is travel writing seriously read for its accuracy? I don’t think so. To be a travel writer is to allow yourself to be taken in by the stream of events around you, like a twig in a river of raging currents. You speed by actual happenings, capturing only their echoes. Try this: sit in a speeding vehicle and, staring at one spot ahead of you, describe the countryside. This is what writing about a place can be like.

Our times require precise information quickly, and travel writing unfortunately cannot be entirely accurate nor on demand. The result would be equivalent to: “8.15am: Woke up. Brushed teeth.” It is a loose form of non-fiction and fiction: It is likely, in an extreme case, to contain imaginary incidents and conversations that could have happened. These things are difficult to verify for all you have is the writer’s word. We know this and, as we do with all single sources, accept their word with a little skepticism. The instinct to not be fooled is strong in many of us, but I suspect deep down we’re wired to like good tales. That is what travel writing is, and will remain at its height. It cannot influence international events, and cannot change the course of history anymore. Once, people who brought news of foreign lands were, in all likelihood, travel writers. There is no need for them anymore. Reporters specialize, travel writers generalize. This is Paul Theroux from The Great Railway Bazaar:

The Singhalese…turned on the fan, sat on one of his crates, and began eating a stinking meal out of a piece of newspaper – the smell of his rotten onions and mildewed rice was to stay in the compartment for the remainder of the journey.
A fact-checker for the New Yorker would have quite a task with this: Was he Singhalese, did he turn on the fan, was he on a crate, did it stink, were the onions rotten, was the rice mildewed, and did the smell really stay for the rest of the journey? I lived with a Korean in New York who stank up the fridge, but the smell was offensive only to me. He ate his food without fuss.

This is Camilo Jose Cela, in Journey to the Alcarria:

The girls are young, very young; but they already seem to have in their eyes that special patient sorrow that one sees in hired animals, dragged hither and yon by bad luck and evil intentions.
This is precisely the kind of matter that suits travel or fiction. A journalist or historian looking for the feeling of the times will find value in the sentence.

William Dalrymple’s books contain the right kind of dialogue in the right kind of places. From an “unshaven, shambolic and friendly” tailor in In Xanadu:

“We live here under an undeclared apartheid.”
The last lines of the book, featuring a Chinese communist party official:

He grunted something in Mongol. Then he translated it for us: “Bonkers,” he said. “English people, Very, very bonkers.”
This is unreal. The comments are perfectly placed, the words strikingly lucid. There’s no reason to doubt Dalrymple’s conversational skills, but who can ascertain whether these things were really said to him, or whether these are recollections of broken conversations which, when remembered, the mind makes complete?

And yet there is an audience for this stuff because good travel writing takes you somewhere, as good fiction does. The truth cannot be completely sacrificed, but it can be subverted to make the story better. This is not to excuse writers who aren’t truthful. I have my doubts about a number of travel writers. But given the distance from editors, and the fact that travel is a very personal experience, it is possible to bend the truth. It’s why we don’t take travel writing seriously anymore. Our perceptions of it have changed. We don't want it to inform, just evoke. The genre has found a new place for itself.


Anonymous said...

Rahul, Apart from Paul T and V.S.Naipaul, the recent ones I found from your POV were Peter Hessler (Oracle bones and River town) and funnily Bill Bryson and Pico Iyer... Great read...

chica said...

I think thats what differentiates a travelogue from a travel guide. Though Lonely Planet makes for a good read too.
I loved Tahir Shah's "In Search of King Solomon's Mines" and William Dalrymple's "City of Djinns". The former was a wonderful treasure hunt of a journey while the later made me look at a city I'm familiar with, with new eyes. I agree that the story may be entirely fictional, but as in Djinns, you know that the city he is talking about is really like that.
I take travel writing very seriously :).

Anonymous said...

I would like recommend a few good travel books I throughly enjoyed recently.

1. Travels with Charley - Steinbeck
2. Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron or any of his books.
3. Last Chance to see - Douglas Adams
4. From Heaven Lake - Vikram Seth

Anonymous said...

One more travel writer who packs a lot of stuff:
Tim Mackintosh-Smith. He follows Ibn Battutah. It's a trip.