Are You Moved? On Travel Writing’s Power to Infuriate and Inspire
Words, miles and an unfortunate encounter with Paul Theroux.
The reasons why we read are the reasons why we travel: to escape, to be inspired, to understand, to satiate our curiosity, and to be thrilled by encounters with the previously unknown.
Ultimately, we want to be moved — whether that involves boarding a flight or remaining firmly ensconced in our armchair with a wad of paper in our lap. Sometimes doing the latter can inspire the former. In 2005, I read a lyrical Financial Times article on Ilha de Mozambique. The way the words had conjured up the remote island’s crumbling stone town, palm-lined promenade, and bustling market made it imperative that I experience the World Heritage Site in person. A visit the following year didn’t disappoint.
A couple years ago, a visit to my sister who was then based in Auckland, New Zealand, involved a detour to the South Island’s Milford Sound. I’ve wanted to go there ever since I first read about the remarkable landscape when I was nine; I can’t remember much about the book but I know it involved kids going there on an expedition — and the extraordinary, surreal beauty described in those pages stayed with me long after details of plot and characters faded away. Sadly, our bus ride and boat cruise didn’t involve as much exploring, but it was nonetheless exhilarating to witness the towering, snow-capped peaks and dense rainforested-cliffs as we steamed past waterfalls towards the Tasman Sea.
I’ve found that on travel-writing assignments, the way I experience a place tends to differ from the experience of other travel: everything is in sharper focus and I’m more attentive. I capture details in hastily typed or scribbled phrases because I’ve learnt the hard way that one is easily overwhelmed in a sea of novel stimulation — the newness, intoxicating at the time, makes specifics harder to recall. The act of writing about a place or a journey (which often happens when I’ve moved on elsewhere) becomes a way of making sense of the experience. With detachment, and a rear-view perspective, it is digested and commemorated, and, as memories become words, you are able to savour it all over again.
In 2013, I interviewed one of the most illustrious travel writers of them all, Paul Theroux, who first turned to the genre in the 1970s when he couldn’t come up with an idea for his next novel. We chatted mostly about his then-just -released published travelogue, The Last Train to Zona Verde, which described an attempt to overland from Cape Town, South Africa, to Timbuktu in Mali.
The way he depicted what he saw en route infuriated me — his exaggerations, breezy generalisations, the way specific examples came to embody sweeping truths. It was opinion — weary, jaded, misshapen — masquerading as observation. In my article, I essentially said as much. I also wondered about his decision not to continue further than Luanda (Angola’s sultry, seething capital) — he believed that if he continued, he would keep encountering “decaying cities, hungry crowds, predatory youths and people abandoned by their governments”.
More than a year after the interview was published, Theroux emailed me, describing the piece as “a poor, vain, sniping attempt to cut me down to size but that’s often the case with young envious opportunistic writers, so I am not surprised, only sorry that I wasted my time talking to you”.
He took umbrage at my questioning as to why he stopped in Luanda , suggesting that I should follow in his tracks till I got to the city, where I should “recall what you wrote in your piece, criticizing me and my effort” before continuing up to Timbuktu — and then write a book about it. “And after the book is published I will be happy to talk to you again. But if you don’t take that trip, you really should consider another career, because criticizing me for something you won’t do yourself is proof you have no balls.”
Flattered and horrified by this missive in equal measure, I decided it was wisest not to respond. My silence infuriated him: a few days later he emailed again. “I have had no reply to my message. So I’m reminding you that since you claimed to be glad that I am writing nothing more about traveling from Luanda to Timbuktu overland and implied that you could do better yourself I’m waiting for you to take the trip, by bus, train, whatever, but of course beginning in your home in Cape Town. Given your certainty I can’t imagine what’s stopping you from setting off.”
Time and money were certainly factors in preventing me from dashing northwards — but so too was a sense that we don’t have to walk in the shoes of our writing heroes to hold them to account. Still, the idea is tempting. Anyone know how to help me change a Land Rover’s tyre?