Page After Page
By Emily Maguire
Originally published in The Weekend Australian
A good read can make a long bus, train or plane trip bearable. Such a book can also change the way you view your destination when you finally arrive.
My experience cruising in the Mekong Delta was intensely coloured by the fact I was reading Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, a novel about a 15-year-old French girl’s affair with a Chinese businessman in French-colonial Vietnam. While others on the boat complained about the unrelenting heat, I marvelled over how it really did feel as though I was travelling through “the long hot girdle of the earth”.
The Lover is a very short novel, yet it took me almost a week to finish. I read in brief bursts, spending the nights in my shuttered cabin with my own lover and the days on deck gazing at the mangroves and coconut woods, sure that the mother in the book was right and that “never in my whole life shall I ever again see rivers as beautiful and big and wild as these, the Mekong and its tributaries going down to the sea, the great regions of water soon to disappear into the caves of the ocean”.
I mentioned my mesmerising Mekong experience to an acquaintance who had taken a similar cruise. He said he had spent the entire trip in a state of agitation, gritting his teeth while the guide spouted propaganda, feeling sick from the food and the heat and disgusted at the contrast between the luxury on board and the desperate poverty of the local fishermen and villagers.
Later in the conversation he mentioned the book he read during his Vietnam holiday: Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, the gripping but grim memoir of an American-Vietnamese man returning to the country of his birth.
Pham’s book is filled with descriptions of poverty and musings on the unjust treatment of many South Vietnamese who didn’t leave after the war. There are also vivid descriptions of disgusting meals and their even more disgusting gastrointestinal consequences. It is easy to see how such reading material may place a gritty filter over a trip, just as Duras’s nostalgic, sensual book placed a soft, golden light over mine.
While some books may cause us to view a place with a particular bias, others help us to see the reality of a place more clearly. Lance Richardson, an Australian writer and photographer living in New York, found that reading Open City by Teju Cole opened his eyes to the palimpsest of the city. Thanks to the narrator of Open City drawing Richardson’s attention to the city’s ghosts — “an African-American burial ground in what is now the shopping district of SoHo, the site of an Indian massacre, now pasted over by the financial district of Lower Manhattan” — he found himself “thinking about the city in terms of time rather than as a static, unified whole — as something changing, constantly disguising or ignoring its own history”. Like the narrator of Open City, Richardson became, he says, “something of a flaneur … taking the inquisitive attitude presented by Teju Cole and applying it to my own surroundings”.
He says, “More than once I’ve found myself stopping and staring at graffiti, trying to imagine how it got there and what was there even before that, and what might be there after it’s gone, too.”
Writer Jane Gleeson-White has also experienced “the power of a book to conjure a world so vividly that it overpowered my own imaginative wanderings and forced me into the place I was travelling through”.
Gleeson-White was reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita on the deck of a ferry from Istanbul to southern Turkey when she was surprised by a sudden shift in the book’s setting from Soviet Moscow to Judea, circa AD33.
“I suddenly became aware of exactly where I was, that if I kept heading south I would be at the place in the book where Pontius Pilate was interrogating Yeshua Ha-Nostri (as Bulgakov calls Jesus).” Gleeson-White found that Bulgakov conjured the ancient Roman province of Judea so vividly that his writing “pierced my romantic longings and recalibrated the sea around me and the distant rocky landforms, not as a backdrop for my dreaming but as the centre of the ancient world”.
“For the rest of the trip,” she writes, “up the coast to Istanbul through ancient Roman ruins like Ephesus, I was fully present, in the distant past but in that place …”
Of course some may prefer to see a place with fresh eyes and a clear mind and read of others' perspectives, if ever, after their trip is done. Be warned, however, that even reading something set a world away can affect a traveller’s perception and attention.
Novelist Kylie Ladd read Hilary Mantel’s epic novel of Tudor politics, Wolf Hall, while travelling across the Kimberley desert. She reports becoming so engrossed in the machinations of Cromwell, Henry VIII and the Boleyns that her husband sent her to the back seat and moved one of their kids up beside him, because, he told her, “the landscape is wasted on you”.
“I literally couldn’t put it down,” Ladd says.
“I remember looking up when we stopped and feeling completely disoriented at the red dust and boabs — in my mind I was at the (London) Tower, or Hampton Court, or in Anne’s private rooms. I also remember not feeling hot even when the airconditioning broke down. Wolf Hall is a cold and damp book and I swear being so immersed in that world that it kept me cool, too.”
I’ve discovered the best way to guard against book-related tunnel vision is to read about a place in as many different forms and from as many different authors as possible. I spend the months leading up to a trip, and then every plane, train, boat and bus journey, devouring memoirs, histories and novels. By switching between present-day memoirs, ancient history, grim political novels and cheerful fairytales, I ensure no single book-related perception-infection is able to take hold.
A final note on reading while on the road: if you travel often and for long periods, there will come a time when you are overwhelmed with the strangeness of a place and need something familiar. In these circumstances, rereading an old favourite or dipping into something set in your home country can be just the thing.
Two months into my time in Vietnam I was hit by a wave of overwhelming homesickness, which I dealt with by locking myself in my Hanoi apartment and wallowing in the novels of Elizabeth Harrower.
After spending two days in the beautifully rendered but despair-filled world of oppressed 1950s Australian suburbia, I was rejuvenated. I threw myself back out into vibrant, loud, intoxicating Hanoi, with the certainty that this was the only place in the world I wanted to be.