When Pico Iyer Delivered Letters from Cuba

The best travel writing this summer

Written by Mini Kapoor | New Delhi | Published: June 23, 2013 10:23:36 pm

The best travel writing this summer

Sentiments on what makes for the best travel writing are varied,and the editor of this Lonely Planet collection contends that “some of the best travel writing is fictional”. So,says Don George while introducing Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers; 32 of the best writers of fiction around were invited to describe their “most meaningful non-fictional journeys”. The leap of logic is a bit curious. But perhaps because of the brief the writers received,the result is riveting,not least because it shines an oblique light on the kind of journeys most of us make at this particular time of the year. This is not the time for short breaks,for quick or impetuous dashes out of town. Travel in the summer is a more considered exercise,planned well in advance and recalled later in a way that often comes to define the year that was for us. Better Than Fiction is a reminder that one of the seductions of reading travelogues is how they enable us to realise ways in which our journeys may change us.

There is first the uncertainty of how much to read into unusual,chance encounters. Pico Iyer recalls a series of visits to Cuba in the late Eighties in a piece titled ‘When Things Make No Sense’. Iyer was then based in California,and in that time before the Internet had given Cubans a tool to reach out to friends and relatives who had fled for a better life in the United States,he’d often be asked to carry back letters. So it seemed routine when a university student asked him to take a letter back for a brother believed to be thriving in,as it happened,California (“In this big house. He’s got swimming pools and tennis courts…”). Within days of getting the letter,the American brother wrote back to Iyer,saying he was on death row,and how he yearned to return to Cuba,and could his brother help. On a visit back to the Caribbean,Iyer could not trace the student and was subsequently hit by self-doubt on the role his communication may have played in exciting false hopes for the imprisoned man. In fact: “I came to think,too,how my very trips to Cuba likely did the same,which is maybe one reason why,not long thereafter,I stopped going down there.”

Jan Morris,who reported exclusively on the first successful expedition to Mt Everest 50 years ago and later made a lifetime travelling and writing,has a dreamlike quality to her piece too,‘The Way to Hav’. Morris,a great profiler of cities and the retreat of the British Empire,eventually created a fictional city called Hav. But,perhaps only to her surprise,readers wanted to know where exactly was this Mediterranean city and how could they get there. “The more I thought about it,” she writes here,“the more clearly I realized that I had indeed made a long,long journey in the mind as well as in the body,through history as through geography. It was my life’s journey,really,mirrored in fancy,but I sent my readers there by a convenient short cut. ‘I made it all up,’ I told them.” And then she proceeds to describe a lifetime of travel — Hong Kong’s Star Ferry,the tomb towers of Iran,the trumpeter of Krakow — to be found in Hav. The imagined is,in disorienting effect,an account of actual travels.

Alexander McCall Smith is evidently a novelist determined to be in full control of the reasons for making special journeys. He will,he suggests,go to places “that have for some reason caught my imagination”. Like Bolivia,so he can figure out why — and why not — a landlocked country has a navy. Like a town called Mobile in Alabama in the United States — he visited it for the “sheer poetry” of its name. Like Alice Springs in Australia and Casablanca in Morocco. Like,most of all,Buenos Aires. If you read McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club series,you’ll know that W.H. Auden is a central influence. So it was that Auden wrote a poem called In Memory of Sigmund Freud,and so it happened to be that McCall Smith came across a magazine article on how the Argentinian capital was the “epicentre of contemporary Freudianism”,with streets even named for leading figures. Having made the journey,a fascinating one,he asks: “Does the fact that I felt I needed to make this journey in the first place tell me something about myself? It is possible that the making of any journey is revealing in that sense; we do not go to places by accident. Personally,I’d prefer not to know.”

But we can’t help but know,can we?

For all the latest News Archive News, download Indian Express App