The literary travel book is a joint product of modern sensibility and modern transport. Now that the sheer wonder of getting to far places has faded, the travel writer has to coax the reader with literary arts and humor him with humor. The old travelers presented themselves without wiles; they were not traveling for their publisher’s or pocket’s sake—Borrow in wild Wales had his Bibles, Darwin his fossils and fauna. There were, of course, “tours”—Johnson and Boswell in the Western Isles, for instance—but mostly these were artless narratives. There were the nineteenth-century travelers who went out with rod and rifle to some far corner of the empire; but only the rare writer, like Sir Richard Burton, who aspired to literature and the depiction of a culture. The traveler’s honest encounter with the unfamiliar was enough to keep the drawing room spellbound when families gathered for reading aloud.
But the modern travel writer is hard put to it to find a part of the world that really is unfamiliar; out of this bunch of books only the one on Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon has the advantage—if it is one—of simply astonishing us with facts. So our traveler today has to have an angle, has to choose a slice of the world and serve it up to us sauced. Perhaps he goes round the utterly familiar coasts of Britain and makes them strange, as Paul Theroux did in The Kingdom by the Sea, or picks out a great natural phenomenon and makes it his own, as Jonathan Raban did with the Mississippi in Old Glory. He has to have something to tell us, or at the least to imply to us, about politics; he has to be something of a historian; and he has to tell us about human nature, and in particular about himself. The extent to which he takes himself with himself, as a whole foreign country, varies: Naipaul’s countries bear the mark of Naipaul himself, Greene finds Greeneland in Mexico and West Africa. All three writers under review, various as they are, are of the kind who immerse themselves in the land rather than dye it in the tincture of their own personalities; yet each is quite distinct.
New dilemmas and new kinds of artifice confront the modern travel writer. How much can he borrow from the novelist? Nothing lightens a heavy page like dialogue, but the solitary traveler (he usually is solitary) has to re-create dialogues with encountered strangers and salty characters that he cannot possibly remember verbatim. Does he even dare to invent the salty local character when the narrative demands it? How does he work in historical background and chunks of present-day politics—straight, or wrapped up in novelistic incident and character? How does he present himself as hero of his odyssey—deprecatingly, jokingly, confidingly? And what attitude does he take toward those well-known accompaniments of travel, boredom and discomfort? The degree of art required of him is proved by the fact that we are generally most likely to bore our friends just when we talk about our travels—the excruciating delay at the airport, the frightful local sicknesses. The professional must give some heroic hints of the horrors he endured, but skillfully extract the boredom.
Redmond O’Hanlon, of the three authors under review, holds an extra card in that the traumas of his trip, hilariously retold, are the crux of the subject matter. His book may or may not become a classic, but it is certainly the funniest travel book I’ve read since Three Men in a Boat—a sort of equatorial “Two Men in a Canoe.” How wonderful it is, the reader marvels, never, ever, to have to go to the Borneo jungle! Travel? Our writers will do that for us, thank goodness.
O’Hanlon is a young scholar and naturalist; his companion in Borneo was James Fenton the poet and critic (“a jungle in himself,” says the blurb, which I suspect was written by O’Hanlon). These two modest academic fellows set out on a classical Heart of Darkness trip into the literally uncharted interior, their ostensible purpose a sighting of the rare Borneo rhinoceros; up the Rajang River, up the Baleh to its source, and across country to the Tibetan massif, unvisited by white men since 1926. Borneo has a temperature of 110° Fahrenheit with 98 percent humidity; headhunting is officially a thing of the past (but in the interior who can be sure?), longhouse hospitality involves heavy draughts of a fierce local spirit and compulsory singing and dancing, and jungle food ranges from quaint to very disgusting indeed.
The intrepid explorers prepare for their trip by visiting Special Air Service assault course headquarters.
“You’ll find the high spot of your day,” said the Major, “is cleaning your teeth. The only bit of you you can keep clean. Don’t shave in the jungle, because the slightest nick turns septic at once…. Keep one set of dry kit in a sealed bag in your pack. Get into that each night after you’ve eaten…. Then get up at five thirty and into your wet kit. It’s uncomfortable at first, but don’t weaken—ever…. In the morning, soak the [socks] you are going to wear in Autan insect repellent, to keep the leeches out of your boots…. Cover yourself at night, too, against the mosquitoes….
You’ll think it’s the end of the world. You can’t breathe. You can’t move. And then after two weeks you’ll be used to it. And once in the jungle proper you’ll never want to come out.”
Giant leeches in the Borneo jungle can be up to a foot long. Fungus grows over the lenses of binoculars within a few days. For breakfast, lunch, and supper you live on rice and spiny river fish. Look around, and you are likely to see someone throwing away a sixteen-foot dead python. That bundle of gourds up on the ceiling is a bunch of old skulls, inhabited by digger wasps. When you take your soaking clothes off at night, they are covered instantly with inch-long ants and moths; and if you bare an arm, it is covered in seconds by butterflies feeding off your sweat and excreting white slime. Nature goes well over the top, around the equator.
In the face of this, O’Hanlon and Fenton’s ploy is to import a literary jokiness, make a little bit of the Rajang River forever Times Literary Supplement, just as the older traveler carried the British empire with him in his heart. Fenton sits reading Swift as they paddle upriver through the rapids:
James, sitting opposite me on the duckboards in the centre of the canoe and facing upstream, was reading his way through Pat Rogers’s new edition of the complete poems of Swift, a straw boater on his bald head, his white shirt buttoned at the neck and at the wrists.
“Some of this juvenilia is pretty feeble,” James would mutter, displeased.
“Quite so. But—er—James?”
“Rapid 583/2, Green Heave Strength six-out-of-ten, is approaching.”
With a second or two to spare, James would shut his book, mark his place in it with a twig, slip it neatly under an edge of the tarpaulin, place his left buttock upon it, shut his eyes, get drenched, open his eyes, squeeze the water from his beard with his right hand, retrieve his book and carry on reading.
Later, he is saved from certain death by one of the Dyak guides. No messing with this jungle, even if you are a cool literary character. If he hadn’t nearly drowned, they would have had to invent it.
Borneo hospitality is almost as great a hazard as the rapids, the climate, and the insects. Arak is served in quantity, and with it stewed lizard. When the local people have sung their songs and danced their dances, the white god-men from the river are called upon. Fenton, advertised by O’Hanlon as England’s greatest bard, obliges with instant rhyming couplets about the strangers from a far country, the dangers of the river, and the hospitality of the finest, strongest tribe in Borneo.
Jerome K. Jerome crossed with Conrad it is; a very fine concoction. But Into the Heart of Borneo (the very title is mock-solemn) is a learned and sensitive book as well as knockabout farce. Where O’Hanlon differs from Conrad is in his wholly unpatronizing admiration for the natives of Borneo he encounters and for the traveler’s skilled, funny Dyak guides. These, even more than the two brave and self-deprecating littérateurs, are the real heroes of the book.
Unlike O’Hanlon and Colin Thubron, Geoffrey Moorhouse is not writing about a single people but about the hodgepodge that cluster around the North-West Frontier of Pakistan. It is the variety and confusion that he wants to catch. The very name and history of the frontier are glamorous, evoking Kipling, Errol Flynn, the Great Game between Russia and the West in the border lands. Sikhs, Punjabis, Baluchis, Pathans, all proudly independent of one another, are tribes that were still fighting the British when independence came for India in 1947. The attitude of the British was that up in the harsh frontier mountains they found worthy adversaries, unlike the soft clerkly Indians of the plains. British troops themselves stationed there were tough, isolated, and uncorrupted by the memsahib.
Moorhouse is a seasoned traveler and writer who has written about India but never traveled through this area before. His route took him to Karachi, through Sind to the Baluchistan desert, up to Quetta, to Lahore in the Punjab, on through Peshawar to the heart of the whole area, the Khyber Pass, and finally on terrifying roads to Chitral and Gilgit in the high Himalayas above Kashmir. The sweep takes in the world of Islam and General Zia’s version of it in particular, the fighting in Afghanistan over the border, and the traffic in drugs, in which Pakistan is now preeminent.
Less quirky than either O’Hanlon or Thubron, Moorhouse is a straightforward writer who tells it as it happened but conceals some art nevertheless. What he saw in the frontier regions was a curious mixture of the ultra-exotic and the ineffably British. In Peshawar he visited the Red Cross hospital for Afghan refugees who had been brought over the mountains on mules or camels or carried piggyback by other men, mujahideen with stumps of legs who stared at him in blank shock. He climbed a mountain above Islamabad to visit a holy man who had sat in a cave for twenty-two years. He also, in Quetta near the Afghan border, met a railway clerk who led straight into the finer points of Geoff Boycott’s batting, and spent each evening there at the cricket nets with fervid young Pakistani boys. He saw poignant relics of the frontier regiments from the 1850s through the Second World War, and the obscure graves of young soldiers from Sussex and Devon and Scotland.
He gives some idea of General Zia’s regime, its extremism, he believes, still relatively curbed when compared to Idi Amin’s Uganda or Greece under the Colonels. Stoning, the lash, and torture nevertheless play a part in it. Hidden in his luggage Moorhouse brought out the signed deposition of a dissident writer who had been taken handcuffed and blindfolded to prison in the night and subjected to torture—beaten, strung up, suffocated, injected with poisons—in the name of things he had never done and people he had never met.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment conveyed by Moorhouse is being in a room with two billion pounds worth of heroin. Since the fighting in Afghanistan and the Khomeini regime in Iran, Pakistan has become chief processor and exporter of it. The frontier territory has always been tribal and hard to police, some of the former princely states even being beyond Zia’s legal reach. So the stuff is processed in caves above the Khyber Pass and brought down the pass in every conceivable guise. Moorhouse was shown two tons of powder as yet undestroyed—a treasure trove, he reflects, more stunning, if less beautiful, than the traditional caskets of rubies and pearls.
While Moorhouse was meeting the shocked survivors of the Afghanistan fighting, Colin Thubron was exploring the great empire that spread its tentacles across disputed frontiers into that unfortunate land. Thubron is a limpid writer who has all the sharpness of eye that Moorhouse has and can also present his version of Russia with a particular sweetsour flavor. The sweetness is the Russians he talked to, the sourness is of course their regime—though for a remarkable amount of his trip he was not, he believes, under KGB surveillance. He took an ordinary British car over the Polish border and, with Intourist permission, covered some ten thousand miles in ten weeks. This gives him the angle he needs in order to engage us with yet another book about Russia; he saw immense countrysides, stayed with Russians at campsites, talked with everyone he met and knew of (in Russian—high marks for homework). He has a novelistic gift for dialogue and settings (and has in fact written novels). Perhaps one might complain that he talked to almost no one who wasn’t forcefully against the regime, but presumably this was inevitable; his introductions were only to dissidents, and the kind of people who take a foreigner aside to talk are all likely to be somewhat dissident too.
Thubron makes us feel freshly that old cliché, the unimaginable size of the USSR. And he is steeped in the memory of past grandeurs and horrors; of the tyrants, from Peter the Great to Stalin, who ruled their empire with barbarous crudity, and of the last great world war, in which Byelorussia, the heart of the empire, lost a quarter of its population. He re-creates the Russian land mass in female metaphors, and compares Russians’ passion for their motherland with the Greek Orthodox love for the Bogoroditsa, Mother of God, and to an earlier matriarchal faith.
He has an exceptional gift for re-creating cityscapes and buildings, and the book scintillates with architectural set pieces—on Leningrad, on Petrodvorets, on those curious Germanic outposts of the Russian empire, Riga and Tallinn. Here is the Hermitage, in contrast to the mild countryside and the bleak modern towns:
Around and above me, in room after room, there unfolded a panoply whose every square inch glittered with an insect’s toil of gilded appliqué, the whirl and shriek of stucco griffins and thunder of gold-entangled lions…. On and on went the rooms, flowering into marble and porphyry stage-sets, reproducing themselves in ormolued mirrors, opening onto parquet pools of ebony, mahogany and amaranth, sinking under the drip and gush of crystal. In the Malachite Room, where vistas of the grey Neva and a troubled sky hung like pictures in the windows, the mantelpieces and columns were vivid with two tons of their green treasure, dug from the Urals. The great ballroom, scene of the innocent transvestite banquets of the empress Elizabeth, shone miraculous with 116 fluted pillars and pilasters and its mammoth chandeliers, blazoned with the arms of all the Russian provinces, filled the room with a ravishing incandescence, like frosted, aerial Christmas trees.
Thubron is best of the three at representing the sheer feel of foreignness which is at the heart of the enterprise of travel writing. When he has crossed the border from Poland into the unending flat stretches of White Russia he feels lost and denatured and he goes into a birch forest to touch and see and feel the land.
The sunlight awoke glades and paths among them, slung with muslin spider-webs, and their trunks glowed with a parchment whiteness. The ground felt soft underfoot. Mosses, thick grass and a weft of mauve and yellow wildflowers covered the dark soil. The leaves of woodland strawberries were pushing up among the ferns, and the shadows were filled with early mushrooms. I was overcome by an extraordinary sense of homecoming.
Travelers go out to find a home where they are not at home. The discovery of familiar mosses and leaves and berries was also part of the experience of Russianness, of being afield, abroad. Of dislocating ordinary vision a little in order to refind the natural world and its dear inhabitants.
June 13, 1985