Home truths on abroad

Making tracks, Thengboche Monastery, Nepal
Making tracks, Thengboche Monastery, Nepal

What is to become of travel writing now that the world is smaller? Who are the successors to Chatwin, Lewis and Thesiger? William Dalrymple, writing in The Guardian, has not the slightest doubt that the genre has a great deal of life in it yet. For wonderfully varied ingredients can be added to a travel book, he says: like politics, archaeology, history, philosophy, art or magic. And it’s possible to cross-fertilise the genre with other literary forms – biography, or anthropological writing – or, perhaps more interesting still, to follow in Chatwin’s footsteps and muddy the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction by crossing the travel book with some of the wilder forms of the novel.

If 19th-century travel writing was principally about place – about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen – the best 21st-century travel writing is almost always about people: exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalisation. As Jonathan Raban once remarked: “Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they meet the brute differences in everything of importance.”

Today, however, many of the most interesting travel books are by individuals who have made extended stays in places, getting to know them intimately: such as Iain Sinclair’s circling of the capital in London Orbital or Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. There is also Ghosh in his Egyptian village, published as In an Antique Land, or Christopher de Bellaigue’s magnificent recent study, Rebel Land, which examines the way that the ghosts of the Armenian genocide and Kurdish nationalism haunt a single remote town in eastern Turkey. As Mishra puts it, in a more globalised, postcolonial world the traveller “needs to train his eye in the way an ethnographer does . . . to remain relevant and stimulating, travel writing has to take on board some of the sophisticated knowledge available about these complex societies, about their religions, history, economy, and politics.”

Read the full article, The Future of Travel Writing, at The Guardian …