Graham Coster

  • In Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple
    Collins, 314 pp, £14.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 00 217948 2
  • The Gunpowder Gardens by Jason Goodwin
    Chatto, 230 pp, £14.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3620 0
  • Silk Roads: The Asian Adventures of André and Clara Malraux by Axel Madsen
    Tauris, 299 pp, £14.95, April 1990, ISBN 1 85043 209 0
  • At Home and Abroad by V.S. Pritchett
    Chatto, 332 pp, £14.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3620 0
  • Great Plains by Ian Frazier
    Faber, 290 pp, £14.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 571 14260 5

‘I did not particularly like travel books,’ explains the rancorous writer-narrator in Paul Theroux’s recent novel My Secret History: ‘the form had fatal insufficiencies. It was usually geography, and potted history, and a kind of lifeless boasting about how far the writer had gone and what he ate.’ It’s a scattershot complaint, but well made all the same. You don’t want to read a travel book which presses upon you, perversely, how much time the author has spent sitting in a chair reading – in which the principal journey has been made by fingers flicking through a library’s card index. Nor should travel writing approximate to an Anneka Rice challenge, celebrating the fulfilment of an absurd logistical ultimatum through can-do heartiness and a wide-eyed winning smile; nor should it feel like having someone else’s endless holiday snaps forced on you with the tacit smugness of ‘I’ve been there, and you haven’t!’

Theroux’s André Parent, like Theroux himself, opts in his own travel narrative for ‘the effect of people talking ... their exact words. Nothing was more human than direct speech. It could be very simple, the place making it extraordinary.’ This is one option: allow your chance-met travelling colleagues, in effect, to write the book for you. Leave yourself out. Alternatively, put yourself in throughout, for the journey you have made is your life, is part of your autobiography, and if it is worth writing about it will have been because you have been changed by it. At the end of An Area of Darkness, his exploration of India, V.S. Naipaul can write that: ‘It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two.’ Graham Greene, surviving a feverish night in the Liberian interior, records a comparable epiphany: ‘I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living. I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable.’ Between Theroux’s democratic self-effacement and Greene’s isolation of the self lie the dangers of half-measure: shoring up your unease at occupying centre-stage with plenty of solid book-learning, or affecting a complacent high profile of opinionation.

The commercial success of Theroux’s own The Great Railway Bazaar is sometimes seen as the catalyst for so much mediocre travel writing nowadays – for encouraging a market-led mentality of journeys by commission and advances impossible to refuse. But Greene obtained a commission for Journey without Maps back in 1935. What really separates a masterpiece of the genre like Greene’s from a frequently attractive work like William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu is that Greene seeks no pretext or context or subtext for his trip other than himself. Dalrymple’s, on the other hand, is both complicated and distracted by his notion of retracing the ancient travels of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to the mythical Xanadu. In the record industry it is called the cover version; travel writing prefers the ‘footsteps’ tag. Why repeat what Marco Polo has already done? Because it gives you the chance to point political and cultural ironies in the changes that have intervened in the lands you transnavigate; because it provides, in the task of delivering, like Marco Polo, a bottle of Holy Oil from the start of your journey to its destination, a sustaining Anneka Rice gadgetry; because it offers the chance for those extended displays of background erudition Theroux deplores – and because it saves you having to have your own reason for going.

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