Thursday, May 07, 2009

Book review: The Best Travel Writing 2009

(For Outlook Traveller, May 2009)

The Best Travel Writing 2009:
True Stories From Around the World
Edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly
Travellers’ Tales, distributed by Westland
Rs 790, 351 pages

In Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the main character has a highly covetable visiting card: “Holly Golightly: Travelling”. Today’s passport officers would call in security if anyone was so unwise to state “Traveller” as their profession, though: it’s not a respectable job in the same way as “journalist” or “writer”.

As Pico Iyer observes in the closing piece in The Best Travel Writing 2009, travelling is something you do as a summer job, a detour between other kinds of work: “Now, doing the same thing twenty-five years later, I see that the jobs we stumble into often teach us more than all the ideal gigs we so patiently stalk. And getting lost or going on a detour is how we find the places we’d otherwise miss.”

Travel writing in 2009 is especially difficult, compared to what it would have been just a century ago. There are no places on the map marked “Here be Dragons”; Google Earth, Wikipaedia and streaming video give all of us the illusion of having charted every last place on earth. Adventure tourists have replaced fearless explorers. And the greatest fear of modern travellers is not the probability of disease or death—it’s the fear that they will turn out to be tourists, not travellers, after all.

The editors have selected their pieces wisely, given the times. Some writers embrace the tourist’s eye-view, but with a skewed perspective. Chris Epting tracks the motel and hotel rooms where music legends died, sleeping in the same room where Janis Joplin spent her last night, wondering whether Gram Parsons still haunts the Joshua Tree Inn. Cecilia Worth attends an unusual music performance inside an empty oil drum in Antarctica, Gabriel O’Malley battles his own sense of distaste as he visits the Stalin Museum in Georgia.

Patricia Dreyfus captures the experience of seeing a tiger in Chitwan National Park; Jill Paris goes boldly in search of the perfect dirndl. Marc-Edouard Leon attends the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Brighton, where the Beard Liberation Front pleads for an end to discrimination against the hairy, and where anxious contestants may use a snood—a whisker hammock—to protect the shape of their locks when they sleep.

The lure of reading 14th or 18th century travel writing often lay in the traveller’s description of the perils of the profession, and this is no different—though the dragons have changed, become more metaphorical. Read Jeff Greenwald, accompanying his mother to India, Susan Van Allen, wryly watching as Italian men become the pursued instead of the pursuers, or Rolf Potts, negotiating Cambodia via the wrong phrasebook. Even the casual traveller must deal with the shock of a new culture, confused signals and flawed assumptions, or the inescapable reality of being the foreigner.

In ‘The Bamenda Syndrome’, one of the most haunting pieces in this book, David Torrey Peters describes his sense of spiraling downwards into an alternate mental space in Cameroon. He witnesses a medicine man pulling worms out of a friend’s teeth, or does he? “Rather than admit to myself that I had arrived unprepared for certain experiences, I narrated my own explanations to myself,” he writes. “But much like a lie built upon a lie, I found myself unable to revise stories to fit events without admitting that I knew nothing, and so my stories … grew more and more fantastic.”

Some pieces are small gems. In ‘I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Quran’, David Grant explores the ins and outs of ‘dating’ in Ghana, where the norms of the Islamic culture forbid actual contact: “If you’re a DJ up in this country, this is how you get around social stricture when you run out of the music with the pious lyrics. You create a hot mix that has no lyrics at all.”

As with all collections, this one has its flaws. The insistence of some of the writers on finding an epiphany in even the most banal travelling experience is puzzling until you note the high number of MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) candidates and teachers among the contributors. And while the pieces criss-cross the globe, the contributors are chiefly Europeans and Americans, as though there were no African or Asian travel writers to be found, barring the ubiquitous Mr Iyer.

But I would still add The Best Travel Writing 2009 to my backpack. Like the best companions, it has much to offer in any given situation, a smattering of practical advice, eminent portability, considerable humour—and it travels well.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The BS column: How not to write about evil

(Published in the Business Standard, May 5, 2009)

Over half a century of Indian writing in English has produced several contenders for the title of the defintive Partition novel; but other conflicts have been more elusive. Partition has been recorded in many Indian languages—from Manto’s classic, brutal short stories to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan to Chaman Nahal’s Azaadi, literature has kept pace with history.

Every few years, someone attempts to write the great Kashmiri novel, but even Salman Rushdie (with Shalimar the Clown) missed the mark. The intensity and tragedy of Kashmir has been served better by non-fiction writers than by fiction writers. A handful of novelists have tried to make sense of the Bhopal gas tragedy, of 1984 and of the Gujarat riots, but I would argue that Indra Sinha (Animal’s People), Shonali Bose (Amu) and Raj Kamal Jha (Fireproof) have been adequate witnesses, but fall short in literary terms.

In their defence, it has never been easy to write about tragedy—or to write about evil, as two recently published works demonstrate. The first, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, is a 900-plus page brick of a novel that was highly acclaimed in France before becoming a worldwide bestseller. It is also one of the most repellent books I have read in recent years—not because of its subject, but because of Littell’s perspective.

The protagonist of The Kindly Ones is Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer in the Second World War, complicit in a number of crimes, now living in retirement and working in a lace-making factory. Littell takes his title from the euphemism for the Furies, forces of merciless but exact vengeance in Roman mythology, and he takes his inspiration for Maximilien Aue’s life history from the troubled, bloody history of the legendary House of Atreus. Novelist and reviewer Laila Lalami called The Kindly Ones “a pornographic catalogue of horrors”, and most reviewers have been left disturbed, if not repulsed, by Littell’s mindlessly graphic musings.

(Speaking personally, I can't remember ever being so repelled by a novel. Not shocked; most of Littell's catalogue of horrors is familiar to any reader of Roman mythology or pulp horror fiction. But to read this book was to swing between boredom and deep, almost physical, distaste.)

Relentlessly repetitious, the novel presents Aue’s lust for his sister in terms that do violence to the memory of the Holocaust; he has sexual fantasises that cast her in the role of a prisoner in the camps, for instance. In her review for The New Republic, Ruth Franklin caught it best when she commented: “But The Kindly Ones is not an important novel, because it fails absolutely to add anything of significance to our understanding of its subject, which is nothing less than the most perplexing question of modernity. How could human beings undertake….an unprecedented systematic program of mass extermination against other human beings? “ It is, however, one of the most widely discussed novels of this year, chiefly for its more sensational aspects and because of the huge advance the author received.

J M Coetzee has, far more elegantly and incisively than Littell, examined the question of how one writes about evil in several of his books. In Elizabeth Costello, the title character comes to the conclusion that you can’t write about evil, or bear witness beyond a certain point, without inflicting damage on yourself as a human being. And besides, she asks, how reliable is memory anyway? She writes: “"Could there really have been witnesses who went home that night and, before they forgot, before memory, to save itself, went blank, wrote down, in words that must have scorched the page, an account of what they had seen, down to the words the hangman spoke to the souls consigned to his hands, fumbling old men for the most part, …. exhausted, shivering, hands in their pockets to hold up their pants, whimpering with fear….?"

A much shorter, much drier document manages to bear witness in its own way. In its scant 43 pages, and in the detached language of the objective witness, the Red Cross Report on Torture effectively presents evidence that indicts the US government for its treatment of suspects and prisoners at Guantanamo. From political websites to the venerable New York Review of Books, the Red Cross Report has opened up a debate on the nature of bureaucratic evil and legalised crime.

Littell offers one way to examine violence that is perhaps valid, but that is deeply repugnant: approach it through the lens of voyeurism, exaggerate the nature of evil to the point where it becomes ridiculous in its offensiveness. The Red Cross report offers a more traditional way: be a witness, write perhaps without the scorching words Coetzee (and Costello) demand, but with absolute honesty. The novelist who seeks to capture the nature of an undertaking such as a holocaust, a riot or a pogrom, must find a way between these two paths. Several Indian film-makers and photographers have found a way of telling their truth, but for the Indian writer, capturing the nature of the beast remains elusive.
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