Reading: The Empire Strikes Out | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: The Empire Strikes Out 

Travel writing is still predominantly an imperial style of literature--arrogant, acquisitive, oblivious to the meanings of local custom,

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Back in the Victorian age travel writing was a relatively straightforward proposition--at least intellectually. The travel itself could kill you. A glance through the titles of some typical Victorian travelogues--In Darkest Africa, First Footsteps in East Africa, No Passport to Tibet--evokes precarious voyages through unfamiliar and (by Western standards) uncharted lands, filled with strange animals and insects and nefarious diseases, through dangerous extremes of climate. Travel writers in those days were a hardy lot, yet most of them died young.

Writing up the experience was simple enough. Travel writers in the 19th century--as Mark Cocker notes in Loneliness and Time, his entertaining and informative history of British travel writing--were less interested in telling a story than in disgorging the details they had collected like trinkets. "The classic Victorian travel book was a brisk, uncomplicated stream of empirical data fixed in a semi-autobiographical matrix," Cocker observes. "Primarily it described, explained, mapped and illuminated an unknown terrain." As some of the first Westerners to reach many of the lands they wrote about, the Victorian travel writers reported everything they saw; since it all had the air of novelty, there was little point in sorting through the material and selecting only the best. Like 19th-century industrialists engaged in what Marx called the "primitive accumulation" of capital, these writers were engaged in the primitive accumulation of facts.

They accumulated a great deal. The explorer Richard Burton wrote some 25 travel narratives, half of them more than 800 pages long. Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Marshman Bailey, another prolific voyager, spilled the contents of his voluminous notebooks into regular newspaper columns. The title of one of his books, China-Tibet-Assam, gives some indication of his haphazard notions of organization--his books were little more than lists. "[Bailey] would never have thought it his responsibility to develop his story like the plot of a novel," Cocker notes. "On the contrary, distortion of the facts for literary effect would have been an abuse of his principal objective, which was to tell the truth. . . . The need for accuracy enjoined him to impart his observations in the narrative at exactly the point he had witnessed them en route. There was no thought of arranging them around a single theme in consecutive, logical order. They were thrown together at random, observation piled on observation, the text only regulated by the dates and localities that punctuated his itinerary. On a single page . . . he could note and explain the bundles of tea bricks transported to Lhasa; then two methods of fishing, one involving tame cormorants, another a primitive system of bamboo reel. The next paragraph launched onto a highly buoyant type of raft made from bamboo, and the page rounded off with a discussion of an insect, whose boiled body produced a type of wax."

This is a distinctly imperial style of writing--omnivorous, acquisitive, oblivious to the meanings of local custom--and it's obviously no coincidence that the flowering of the Victorian travel narrative coincided with the Western clamor for empire. "Just as European economic and military superiority had enabled a handful of nations to reshape the earth according to their own design, so did a European system of knowledge take precedence over other modes of perception and understanding," Cocker writes. "Giving expression to this intellectual colonialism, Bailey wrote of his second journey that 'Each new place, each new bird or flower or animal, each trigonometrical point or hyposometer reading was an addition to the sum total of human knowledge.'" Clearly Bailey didn't care, as Cocker notes, that much of the "new" knowledge he brought back was already well-known to others with darker skin than his, that "the white-eared pheasant he had sought, and which had previously only been known to the Western world as a boxful of feathers in the British Museum, had probably been recognized and trapped by local hunters for centuries."

It's difficult these days to find lands free from the grasp of our multinational commercial empires; even the most remote villagers in the most undeveloped lands know of and often drink Coke. But many contemporary explorers are still strikingly Victorian at heart. Pico Iyer, an essayist for Time magazine and the author of the recent Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, loves travel, and like many of his 19th-century counterparts he's made a career out of it. In many ways he's an anachronism, an old-fashioned chronicler of curiosities set loose in a postmodern world.

In his first book, Video Night in Kathmandu, Iyer described the odd cultural combinations taking place in contemporary Asia: a restaurant in China serving a dish called "Ike and Tuna Turner," Michael Jackson fans in Kathmandu. But the most striking chapter was the one on Burma, a land almost hermetically sealed and surely one of the least likely tourist destinations imaginable, a country that "had retired, half monk and half misanthrope, to live among the changeless furnishings of the past."

In Falling Off the Map Iyer offers a guided tour of a number of "lonely places," countries that "don't fit in; the places that have no seat at our international dinner tables; the places that fall between the cracks of our tidy acronyms (EEC and OPEC, OAS and NATO)." Iyer's prose is carefully burnished, always a pleasure to read. But like Lieutenant Colonel Bailey, he does little more than list his impressions; his book is a new cabinet of curios.

Luckily Iyer is a better editor of his observations than Bailey, and his details are judiciously chosen. He writes so engagingly about the places he visits--from Cuba to North Korea, from Paraguay to Bhutan--that one forgets his larger omissions. Iyer is an affectionate collector of ironies, a connoisseur of the absurd. Arriving in North Korea for what he calls "my holiday with Kim Il Sung," Iyer peruses an in-flight magazine, relishing the photos of a "Happiness-Filled Pleasure Park," filled with rides like "Mad Mouse," which, a caption explained, "makes you rhythmical and buoyant." North Korea, as Iyer presents it, would put Orwell's Big Brother to shame, yet Iyer finds the country an oddly cheery dystopia. The "all-triumphant, resolute and incomparable leader" Kim Il Sung is omnipresent: his pictures are everywhere, statues are built in his name, flowers are named after him--he even chose the exact location of the Mangyongdae Fun Fair, which Iyer learned by reading a volume titled An Earthly Paradise for the People. In a bookstore Iyer found 114 different books by Kim and his son; on the wall of his hotel room he found a calendar "featuring four important dates in the life of Kim Il Sung."

Iyer has a sharp eye and a sometimes wicked tongue. In Argentina he finds himself at the mercy of a manic tour guide ("a Joel Grey look-alike") who insists on informing his charges again and again that "Jujuy is the capital of the province of Jujuy!" Tedium sets in, punctuated by an occasional absurdity, all of which Iyer describes with typical grace. After one stop, "the van started up again, and the guide returned to outlining the relationship between Jujuy and the province of Jujuy, in French, Spanish, and English, none of which could be told apart. . . . After fourteen hours of this . . . I began to feel I knew Jujuy pretty well."

What makes this book most engaging is Iyer's sincere enthusiasm, even affection, for the places he visits. He's touched by the "unhardened sweetness" of Vietnam and remembers with fondness "sipping chilled mango juice in the sunlit mornings" in the mountains of Bhutan. But Iyer is moved most by the "mix of elegy and carnival that defines Cuba for me," by the "sense of sunlit sadness that makes it, in the end, the most emotionally involving--and unsettling--place I know."

But there's something troubling even about Iyer's enthusiasms. He's unable to see the world through the eyes of anyone but a tourist--judging the countries he visits not on their own terms but on how they treat their visitors, unable to look beneath the surface to get an idea of how the people themselves live. With true Victorian hubris, Iyer is given to a kind of national anthropomorphism, assigning stock personalities not only to the inhabitants of the countries he visits, but to the countries themselves. Vietnam, he explains at one point, "still has the bashful charm of a naturally alluring girl stepping out into bright sunlight after years of dark seclusion."

Iyer cannot, or will not, see the bigger picture. He notices the shortages in Cuba, but doesn't mention the concerted efforts of its neighbor to the north to destroy its economy. He notices the inflation in Argentina and the corruption in Paraguay, but he doesn't seem to realize the extent of the economic disaster that has befallen Latin America--or at least its poor majority--in the last decade or so. Iyer at one point comments that "poverty breeds wonkiness," but that's about the extent of his macroeconomic insight. Perhaps I'm expecting too much. After all, I don't often recognize my own country in the cheery caricatures of Iyer's Time magazine; why should I expect more from Iyer himself? Iyer is a far better writer than most on the staff of Time, but his vision is as limited as theirs. Like many of his colleagues in our mainstream media, he presents the manifold oddities of the wider world in a way that's designed to reinforce our perception that we're normal. It's the rest of the world that's out of step. All the lonely people in all those lonely places--where do they all come from?

While the Victorians and their latter-day followers are concerned with exterior details, most travel writers today are more concerned with interior dramas. It's not of course that Victorians and neo-Victorians have no inner life; it's that they don't write about it. Indeed, it's hard not to look upon neo-Victorian Wilfred Thesiger's cravings for "barbaric splendour . . . savagery and colour and the throb of drums" without wondering a bit about the state of his unconscious. In many contemporary travel accounts our guides do the wondering for us. For them travel offers less an opportunity for discovery than for self-discovery, with the world providing an exotic set of backdrops. To the extent that these travelers connect with the cultures they pass through, it's as voyeurs, watching, fascinated or bored, as the sights pass by.

Roberta Allen's Amazon Dream, an account of travels in the Peruvian rain forest, is less a story of Peruvian culture than it is the story of Allen herself, a 41-year-old American artist and writer who seeks in her travels the realization, quite literally, of childhood dreams. "I have dreamt of the Amazon all of my life," she writes early on in her account. "The Amazon has always meant freedom to me, to live without rules, to do as I please." As a child Allen used her imagination to escape her overprotective parents, turning vacant lots into jungles to explore, pretending to be Rima the jungle girl, "a free spirit, at one with the creatures of the forest," roaming "in a secret world where invisible natives kept me company." As an adult she attempts the opposite transformation, turning the real Amazonian jungle into the place of her early dreams. Seeing the trees of the jungle for the first time, she recalls, "I felt as though I had always known those trees, that all my life I was waiting to see them. I was discovering in the world a dream that was real."

Peru hardly seems an ideal vacation spot--it's a country crushed by poverty and political terror, its citizens caught between the repressions of the military, the drug lords, and the murderous Shining Path guerrillas. (Allen traveled there in 1987, to places that hadn't yet been invaded by the civil war, and so avoided the worst of the terror.) But Allen is determined to live out her dream, seeking out the most isolated corners of the jungle, traveling in a taxi that "looks like a car abandoned after a crash on a New York street" and in a boat that looks "like a shipwreck." She carefully avoids anything that smacks of tourism, though, stuck one day waiting for a boat to be repaired, she stops off at a local zoo. But this hardly counts as tourism in any conventional sense: "This zoo is like no other I've seen. More than half the dirty, wire mesh cages are empty. Walking on ramps of rotting planks, I peer into pools of slimy water for signs of life, but many of the pools are empty too."

The rain forest, as Allen quickly discovers, is home not only to quaint villagers and beautiful scenery, but also to an astounding variety of insects, many of which see Allen as an exotic kind of food. She finds herself on one excursion face to face with a "vibrating wall of insects . . . mosquitos, horseflies, bees, hornets, wasps, dragonflies, moths. I am frozen to the spot when suddenly, clouds of tiny black flies attack us, each one no bigger than a dot. I feel little stabs of pain all over. They even find their way into my socks. I leap about like someone with St. Vitus Dance, and try to wave them away. They leave tiny, blood red marks on my skin." Allen escapes at last by leaping into the waters of the river. "I feel the most exquisite relief. The thick, soupy water feels like heaven. The presence of piranhas seems a minor threat."

Allen is a supple, poetic writer, able to capture a scene in a few spare words; she conveys well both the beauty and the chaos of a landscape overflowing with life, very little of it human. But more interesting than her descriptions of exotic flora and fauna is her attempt to reconcile her experience with her dreams, to come to terms with natives who are real people, not the imaginary friends of her childhood fantasy. Throughout the book Allen's relations with others are strained, awkward; to her the Amazon is still a dream, a "sideshow" to her interior drama. She's a voyeur. Her descriptions of the Amazonian natives are vague, cliched; she can see them only through the haze of her preconceptions. They are innocent, "childlike"; they experience life "directly." Even the scenery seems at times "as two-dimensional as Henri Rousseau's jungle scenes."

Only in the end does she come to terms with her dilemma, the dilemma faced by all travelers. "When I arrived in the jungle, I had thought about the Amazon in relation to myself and my needs. I had a dream to make real." But "in between these moments of seeing my dream in the world" she began to truly open herself to the new experience and connect with those around her. Her strained, erotically tinged relationship with her guide, Luis, gives way at the end to a kind of friendship. "There is an ease in the way we are together that didn't exist before," she notes, happily. "I feel as though I am seeing him for the first time in full dimension. In my fantasies, he has been the focus of my desire. In reality, he has been my bridge to this world. But I haven't seen him apart from my needs until now."

Allen finally moves beyond solipsism; her greatest discovery is that travel, like life itself, can mean more than self-discovery, and that real self-discovery means discovering one's ability to connect with others in the world. Which is why her book will outlast Iyer's. It suggests, as much by its failures as its successes, that the future of travel writing is in the attempt to break from the Victorian arrogance that has lingered so long after the empires have fallen.

Loneliness and Time: The Story of British Travel Writing by Mark Cocker, Pantheon, $23

Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World by Pico Iyer, Knopf, $20

Amazon Dream by Roberta Allen, City Lights, $9.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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