|Oct/Nov 2001 Book Reviews|
Robyn Davidson (Ed.)
Wieidenfeld and Nicolson (June 2001) 344 pages
ISBN: 0 297 64697 4
...the next news was I was in a heap, on a load of spikes, some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a bag-shaped game pit. It is at these times you realize the blessing of a good thick skirt. -- Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)
According to tradition is was at Ulm, during the seventeenth century that they preserved the shoe of Ahasverus, the Wandering Jew. -- Claudio Magris (1939 - )
The ranks were now completely broken. Eight hundred men were engaged in flight, throwing their rifles away, dropping the litters on which the wounded were writhing, abandoning their equipment, undoing their belts that they might be able to run faster". -- Euclides Da Cunha (1866-1900)
"All taxonomies are fuzzy sets," says Robyn Davidson in her excellent introduction to this book. And, as an editor, she goes on to demonstrate just how fuzzy the set designated "travel writing" is. Davidson herself fell victim to this fuzziness. She was shocked when her first book, Tracks, which described her solo walk across Australia using camels as cheap transport for her gear, was classified as a travel book. For her, it was not "the geographical distances and the means by which [she] covered them," which was the important thing. It was, she implies, just something she had to do.
Subsequent experiences as a traveller who also writes convinced her, firstly, that impartial observation is impossible because travellers always carry their own world of values and time with them: and secondly, that her writing was doomed by publishers to be classified as "exotic travel: subsection, female."
All of which, brought her to the question "What is travel writing and who gets to say so?." The special difficulty of this question being that we live in a world where the exotic and foreign can frequently be found in the local shopping centre, and the most popular venues for tourist "abroad" are becoming more and more a home-from-home.
Davidson's own answer to the question is that travel writing is "a non-fiction work where the author goes from point a to point b and tells us something about it." And this is what makes this book such a delightfully idiosyncratic collection. Whatever mood you happen to be in, there is something here to amuse, stimulate, shock, titillate, inform, accept of reject. And the list of authors ranges from known to unknown--expected to unexpected: Chatwin to Buddha; Hemingway to Matsuo Basho; Flaubert to Lessing.
The book is organized by countries and every continent is included. There are journeys of the mind as well as the body; of reverie and adventure; of war and displacement; of pleasure and of horror:
Berlioz hastens back from Paris with loaded pistols and composes an overture; Clara Schumann tells of her performances in Germany and Russia; Chatwin meets Nadezhda Mandelstam; Richard Burton bursts with pride in Mecca; Rousseau is propositioned by a pederast; Aspley Cherry-Garrard survives the worst journey in the world; Anna Leonowens matches wits with the King of Siam; a Napoleonic Foot Soldier confides in his diary; Flaubert tells "straight out and without circumlocution" of his sexual exploits in Egypt; and Mary Kingsley travels Africa in a good thick skirt.
These are just a few of the varied delights in this travel book. It is not a book you can easily read straight through and still digest, but it is ideal for dipping into, and you'll probably read all of it in the end. My only complaint, really, is that just the names and dates of the authors were not enough for me. I would have liked Davidson to work a little harder as an editor and to have provided brief background information about each piece. It would have been nice to know, for example, why Cherry-Garrard was putting himself through such agonies in Antarctica; and what eventually happened to Robert Antelme after his forced retreat as a POW of the SS as the victorious allies advanced into Germany. Of course I can read the books from which these excerpt are chosen, and perhaps it is the purpose of this book that these excerpts should whet the appetite for more, but there are so many new books now on my list that I would spend my life in vicarious travel. A few short-cut's would mean I could actually go out and maybe experience some of these worlds for myself.
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