The travel narrative is probably the oldest form of story-telling—dating back to some early hunter who persuaded his fellow men that over behind that weird rock there was something remarkable, well worth going to see or even to eat. The point of travel is to satisfy a hunger; and whether leaving home feeds the imagination or fills a more prosaic need, the person who brings back the news and views and perfumes of faraway lands is part of an honorable tradition.
A great travel book is an intimate encounter not only with foreign places but with a total stranger—the author. First, there's always the question of: How much is he making up? As a travel writer for magazines (and lately, of a book) for many years, I can vouch for the accuracy of most of my colleagues. The way all travel writers do lie is what they leave out: the days when nothing happened, or the trip to the bazaar that was a bore, or the conversations with foreigners who had nothing new to say.
A good travel book is partly a fib, because it gives to messy, sprawling reality the neat, compelling shape of a good novel—by leaving out the daily meaninglessness. Yet a great travel book doesn't make me want to go anywhere; instead it makes me feel I don't have to, because reading already took me there.
What makes a travel book great? It lets me not only see a place but also hear the way foreigners speak and grasp how they think. It surprises me on every other page. Such a book not only assesses the past of a place, but predicts the future as well.
The following five are among my favorites.
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THE INNOCENTS ABROAD (Mark Twain)
Back in 1867 the Grand Tour was Europe and the Holy Land, which for an American meant success and enlightenment. A young writer pseudonamed Twain was sent by his San Francisco newspaper on a Grand Tour package cruise for nearly a year. His serialized report still remains one of the funniest, most savage, and cleverest accounts of a journey—and fellow passengers—ever written.
Though the itinerary (New York-Spain-France-Italy-Greece-Constantinople-Jerusalem-Damascus-Egypt-Gibraltar-Bermuda-NY) and the price ($1250, all-inclusive) belong to another century, this is the first modern travel book. The ironic wit, the casual yet packed language, the sense of a frank narrator, and most of all the dialogue are closer in tone to, say, Paul Theroux than to any of Twain's erstwhile predecessors. Here he is on the delights and disappointments of Constantinople, before it became Istanbul:
"When I think how I have been swindled by books of Oriental travel, I want a tourist for breakfast. . . Mosques are plenty, churches are plenty, graveyards are plenty, but morals and whiskey are scarce. The Koran does not permit Mohammedans to drink. Their natural instincts do not permit them to be moral. They say the Sultan has eight hundred wives. This almost amounts to bigamy. It makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a thing permitted here in Turkey. We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however."
THE TRAVELLER'S TREE (Patrick Leigh Fermor)
The quarter-century following the Second World War were the boom years in the Caribbean, when the archipelago became chic and affordable for Americans and Europeans, when it changed the most, and when its hot style—from calypso to the ideal of a tropical beach— seemed to permeate popular culture. The finest travel book to deal with its motley history, moods, and peoples—for there are many Caribbeans—was written by a British high school dropout turned war hero, who had captured a German general in Greece behind enemy lines and turned to writing in peacetime.
Though Fermor's book appeared in 1950, and the islands it describes have altered irrevocably, anybody who visits Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and several others should know it. Fermor can range easily from the obscene lyrics of a popular song to a dense, allusive description of a voodoo rite or a rain forest, to citing a monk's 18th century journal, to simply sitting in a tiny harbor and setting down what happens. A century from now, this book will be the best record of what that flourishing, fervent Caribbean was, because Fermor stayed fascinated by it all, and especially by the unexpected encounter:
"A young Haitian of extraordinary beauty was standing at the bottom of my bed when I awoke. His shoulders and arms were draped with snake skins. Observing without a word that my eyes had opened, he spread all these treasures across the bedclothes and placed a little stuffed alligator on my breast. Many of the skins had beautiful markings, and one, which, judging by its breadth, must have sheathed an enormous brute, was over seven feet long. But our finances were in such a bad state that I had to refuse them."
ARABIAN SANDS (Wilfred Thesiger)
Wilfred Thesiger—the last British nomad, now nearly ninety—has enjoyed and endured one of the most extraordinary lives of our century, largely spent in difficult, beautiful terrain among little-known and often dangerous tribes. He has set a standard by which all other travelers and explorers can measure themselves. From Abyssinia to the Sudan, Kurdistan to Iraq, Chitral to Hunza, no man has dared more, seen more, or so completely opened himself to experiences outside his culture. What Thesiger saw was almost unknown before him and vanished afterward—like his years in the marshes of southern Iraq, recounted in The Marsh Arabs. His few books stand well outside and above the body of travel literature. They read as great creative journeys of the soul.
His masterpiece, Arabian Sands, details his years spent in the Empty Quarter, the vast desert within a desert spread across Oman and Saudi Arabia. It was then (post–WWII) known only to the bedu who chose to wander its unmappable dunes. No plane had ever flown over it; it could be traversed only by camel. Thesiger explored it for five years, taken in by a bedu tribe, and a decade later wrote a classic account of those years and journeys.
"Their bodies were lean and hard, tempered in the furnace of the desert and trained to unbelievable endurance," he says of his companions. "It was continuous thirst. Sometimes it was twelve days from one well to the next. Sometimes there was no food for several days. . . No man can live there and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him, weak or insistent according to his nature, the yearning to return. For that cruel land can cast a spell no temperate clime can match."
ON FIJI ISLANDS (Ronald Wright)
No region has spawned more books of travel than the South Pacific, going back to the voyages of Cook and continuing through the neglected Robert Dean Frisbie. In our own era the fashion has been for the foolhardy effort that tries to swallow the giant ocean and its many societies in one vast gulp; the result has been a lot of third-rate books. One master who knew better is Ronald Wright, author of Cut Stones and Crossroads, Time Among the Maya, and Stolen Continents (which traces the invasion of the New World from the viewpoints of several Native American cultures).
Paradise has a way of stifling, not igniting, even the best writers, but Wright is so knowledgeable and unpretentious, with so much humor and clear-eyed skepticism, and an effortless way of putting characters before the reader, that Fiji ceases to be merely another beautiful set of islands but instead emerges in many-minded depth. All Wright's astringent portraits of history, of island arguments and gossip and intramural warfare, of daring exploration in great sailing-canoes, and of cannibalism, emerge with a calm, deft touch and much perspective. As he puts it:
"More than one writer has used the metaphor of a leaky roof to characterize Fijian society under the assault of the modern world. . . Impending ruin has most often turned out to be change; and change has not yet proved ruinous. Bau, once the terror of the archipelago, is now the shrine of Fijian identity. If the shrine appears slightly neglected, it is worth remembering that the ancient Fijians often neglected the houses of their gods whenever they felt secure."
THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR (Paul Theroux)
Every once in a while a book comes along which defines a genre. When Theroux's masterpiece appeared in 1975, subtitled By Train Through Asia, he was not quite 34, with ten books to his credit, most of them novels. His route, from London on the Orient Express through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and back on the Trans-Siberian Railway, played to his diverse strengths as a writer. ("All travel is circular," he remarks. "The Grand Tour is just the inspired man's way of heading home.")
His book is full of unforgettable character sketches, taut glimpses of landscape, and tart social observation; of personal opinion delivered with enormous humor, all in a prose at once musical, flexible, and full of great jokes. The passage of nearly a quarter-century has made the book seem even wiser than it did then, for most of Theroux's political predictions have come true, and he saw certain risky countries right after they opened up or right before they closed down. His writing is so superb it looks easy, but this book will not be bettered anytime soon—and I cannot think of any more fitting last words than Theroux's first:
"Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. . .Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues. . . I sought trains; I found passengers."