Archive for ‘places’

February 10, 2015

Janice Pariat, Seahorse/ Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners/ Mhairi Mcfarlane, It’s Not Me, it’s You

In the last few months I’ve been in London a bit, in Delhi a bit, in Newcastle a lot. I have read some books set in those places. The real theme of this column (from a few weeks ago) is this: there are times when I miss Delhi so much.

 

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A recent read, Mhairi Mcfarlane’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, is a romance novel set partly in the city in which I now live. I’ve become very fond of Newcastle very quickly, and want to see it in fiction. And yet as I read the local sections of the book I rolled my eyes a lot; I found every reference to a specific place jarring, as if it were trying to draw too much attention to itself. Certainly when the action shifted to (the much more often written about) London, everything felt a lot smoother. I’m not sure whether this had anything to do with the book itself, or whether the shift to a less familiar (to me) setting was what changed; but I’m now struck by the idea of Londoners reading the thousands of books set in their city with the same feeling with which I read this one.

They must be used to it though, when it’s all so written-about. I’ve recently returned to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which West Indian immigrants to the UK carve out homes for themselves in a London that is so much a part of their culture that every street is fraught with meaning. “Jesus Christ, when he say ‘Charing Cross’, when he realise that is he, Sir Galahad, who going there, near that place that everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man,” thinks one newly-arrived young man.

When Nem, the protagonist of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse, moves to London friends congratulate him on being able to live there while young. “it stays with you, for London is a moveable feast”. “That’s about Paris,” objects Nem, before discovering that “all these cities were identical, cloaked with the same shiny, glittering appeal; pronounced with reverence, like a hushed prayer. [Nem] found that London was filled with old light”.

I don’t know if Nem’s “old light” is the same thing that Selvon’s ‘Sir Galahad’ refers to when he visits landmarks so significant as to be part of the language itself, but I think it might be. Selvon’s narrator later describes the importance of being able “to have said ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.” Everything is saturated with significance. Here is a place whose name is in the dictionary; there is the place where T.S. Eliot once worked. Perhaps it does not seem jarring to speak of these landmarks, because they are already so spoken of. Perhaps residents of that city do not sit grumpily reading books set there and complaining that the setting feels forced, that the author is trying too hard. Perhaps old light even comes with the assurance that a place is worthy of being written about.

This column is about a city that I don’t know well, and another city that I’m beginning to know and love. But there’s a third city, always, that is home. Pariat’s Nem spends a significant part of the novel in Delhi; it’s there he falls in love, goes to university, finds his first few jobs. In “Golf Links, Panchsheel, Defence Colony, Neeti Bagh […] previously unfashionable Lado Sarai and industrial Okhla,” and a few pages later “in the newly trendy Hauz Khas Village, in front of Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, […] Paranthe-wali gali.” Nem’s relationship with Delhi, like most people’s is not entirely positive; even those of us who love the city deeply have trouble doing so unreservedly.  But homesick and a continent away I can see how a mere list of landmarks can begin to be important; how they can cease to be a mere attempt at local colour and become talismanic.

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August 29, 2014

Bhajju Shyam, The London Jungle Book

A thing I’ve occasionally done to amuse myself since I moved to the UK is to adopt a fake curious anthropologist’s gaze and marvel at the natives with their primitive food and orange war paint and television rituals (a story they keep telling one another about an immigrant doctor who averts disaster a lot and is basically my dad*; a weekly sport involving cakes).

All of which made rereading Bhajju Shyam’s London Jungle Book on a recent trip to London particularly gratifying.

From a recent column.

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The history of anthropology, like many other areas of study, is inextricably bound up with the history of colonialism, and the assumption that the subject positions of observer, recorder, analyser belonged as naturally to the European as the position of object for study belonged to the “native”. Verrier Elwin was a tribal activist who took up Indian citizenship after independence and whose expertise was drawn upon by Nehru; he was also a man who spent years studying the Gond people, married a Raj Gond girl (she was thirteen, he was forty) and wrote and published extensively about her sexual behaviour, eventually divorcing her after his work on her people was done. Nowadays this form of research would be considered somewhat unethical (to put it mildly) and it would be nice to think it wasn’t entirely accepted at the time.

But Elwin has been dead for half a century now, and it has been ten years since the grandson of his manservant wrote a book of his own. It’s probably reductive to read Bhajju Shyam’s The London Jungle Book entirely in the context of this history, and I don’t mean to, but while it can’t negate a few centuries of modern history, it is full of joyous inversions that make that history more palatable.

London Jungle BookCommissioned to decorate the walls of a British restaurant, Bhajju Shyam travels to London with mixed feelings. An artist, and one unfamiliar with the local language, he records his experience of the city through a series of paintings that draw upon the motifs he is familiar with, from Gond art. And so the London Underground becomes a giant worm, with the individual lines depicted by snakes (which connote the earth) and the stations by spiders at the centre of complex webs. Big Ben is a giant rooster (another keeper of time), its eye watching over the city. His regular bus, with its safe, familiar route, appears as a faithful dog. English people at a pub are represented by bats hanging upside-down on the branches of a tree—suggesting that they truly come to life at night, and that the pub itself is a sustaining, life-giving environment. The different varieties of London rain are depicted through a series of the patterns used in Gond tattoos.

There’s no sense that any of this is intended for a deliberate decolonising project; for one thing, it’s far more generous than such a project might be. The London Jungle Book is always kind to London, treating it with an openness and an interest even when speaking of unpleasant things. At one point he observes London’s homeless population; at another he points out that many of those watching him work were happier to speak about his art to one another than to him. Often it is playful and personal—the map of the underground includes a busker in one corner “because I like buskers”; later on Shyam speaks of the social cachet his travels abroad have brought him, so that he can now tell stories that other people want to listen to, and above him the crescent moon is transformed into an underground sign.London Jungle Book 2

 

And yet it’s hard not to read politically. Because here is a Gond artist from Bhopal observing the British metropole, using a title reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling (in their introduction to Bhajju Shyam’s book, Sirish Rao and Gita Wolf claim that Elwin compared one of his own books on the Gond to The Jungle Book), and insisting upon interpreting the city on his own terms, and through his own set of signifiers. The city is turned into a natural space, populated by snakes, dogs, bats, and similar creatures; it’s the author himself who figures as the human observer. And in the end he returns to his own country in the figure of a reporter and a teller of stories, someone whose words and representation of this foreign city and its people bear real weight

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*(Not my mum; it is an important part of the story that the Doctor cannot be a woman, for some mystical reason that an outsider cannot understand)

August 27, 2014

What I Did On My Holidays (Nine Worlds, LonCon3)

I spent two weeks this month in London meeting people I like (Sunny! Sid! Uttara! Yoav! Other people I have embarrassingly forgotten!) and going to museums and attending cons, also filled with people I like. I took very few pictures, and the ones I did didn’t have people in them, but such is life. This is not a con report, because such a thing would require more rigour and a better memory than I have brought to the process.

 

I was on three panels at Nine Worlds. The first of these was on myths and fairytales, with Lauren Beukes, John Connolly, Joanne Harris and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, moderated by Nazia Khatun. I was commuting from friends’ house in central London, had slipped into a panel directly before mine to avoid having to speak to new people, and was probably too disoriented to say much of value. I’d have liked to be smart and eloquent enough to properly problematise some of what other panelists were saying re. the universality of myth, but I did get to talk about the Ramayana, bestiality and Karen Joy Fowler (separately, she added hastily) and probably did not embarrass myself.

Other things I attended on the Friday: the “Archaeological Worldbuilding” Monsterclass with Debbie Challis from the Petrie Museum (great, and so well attended that most people had to sit on the floor and Jared performed bouncer duties), two good academic papers (Kelly Kanayama on Asian female assassins in comics, Samantha Kountz on immigration in post-cold war SF film), Nine Fanworks Recs (I was neutral on this–it turns out hearing people talk about their fandoms is mostly interesting only if everyone’s familiar enough with them not to need the plot explained), and the LGBTQAI and Race and Culture tracks’ joint tea party, which was the best thing because queer people and people of colour and cake all in the same room. Then I went to my second panel, on school stories, with Zen Cho, Emma Vieceli, and Tiffani Angus, moderated by Ewa Scibor-Rylska. It involved wavy hand gestures, commiserating with the audience over the later Chalet School books, and at some point I shouted something about the MORAL LACUNA AT THE HEART OF HOGWARTS. So that was alright.

The journey home featured a regular bus, two night buses, and an angry drunk man who wanted to murder our bus driver. Also two fellow subcontinentals who watched from the upper deck of the bus as the man was removed and applauded and said “good show”. I don’t know.

On Saturday I had no panels and felt very unburdened. I went to a genuinely wonderful panel titled “This Will Always Be Your Home” in the Race and Culture track; I walked in too late to hear the panelists introduce themselves but  Zen Cho and Iona Sharma and Kelly Kanayama and Koel Mukherjee were all there, and another person whose name I missed (help, someone?), and it was about carving out a space for oneself in fandom and it was personal and funny and familiar. I then went to the books panels on Westerns (Jared Shurin, Will Hill, Stark Holborn, John Hornor Jacobs, Joanne Harris) and “Looking Backwards” (Gail Carriger, John J Johnston, Marek Kukula).

Sunday was the “Reading SF While Brown” panel, with Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Taran Matharu, and Camille Lofters, moderated by Stephanie Saulter. There was a point at which it was the Reading C.S. Lewis While Brown panel because apparently Narnia stretches its tentacles towards us all, but we also talked about how people of colour are described, and smelling spicy to werewolves, and magically being a white person for the duration of reading and I may have told a roomful of people that I had a thing for racist Victorians, which was made extra odd because there were a couple of people (cosplayers? time travellers? who knows?) wandering around in solar topees. It was recorded, so it might be on the internet at some point. I think we were entertaining. It was also the last Nine Worlds panel that I attended, because socialising and book buying intervened.

[We pass here over a few days of sightseeing and being fed wonderful food. There was the comics exhibition at the British Library and Matisse's Cut Outs at the Tate Modern and the single Rachel Kneebone piece at the White Cube that made me have to go home and reread Mervyn Peake and Derek Walcott.]

 

And on to Worldcon! I arrived on Thursday afternoon, delayed by Yoav’s providing me with dhokla and mangoes for breakfast. This meant that I missed the earlier panels I wanted to attend and also failed to meet my roommate (Hugo Nominee Liz Bourke*) until late that night. It also meant that I missed most of the terrifying registration queue, rumour of which had reached me as I travelled across the city, and was out in about forty minutes. I caught the second half of “When is a fantasy not a fantasy?” (it was good) and then proceeded not to attend any panels in favour of talking to Maureen Kincaid Speller until the evening’s panel on the Hugo best novel shortlist. Maureen had read the whole of the Wheel of Time in two weeks. Matt Hilliard had read Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles. Ruth O’Reilly tried to be nice about Mira Grant’s Parasite. Everyone, in short, had suffered nobly for their art and their pain was amusing to us.

On Friday I went to “Constructing Genre History” (which had good people on it and ended up being largely about personal histories of genre, but was interrupted by mysterious noises in the room next door), “An Anthology of One’s Own” (also very good; I’m sure someone more responsible than me livetweeted it), “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding” (disappointingly aimless, considering how great the essay that inspired it was), and then Naomi Alderman and Christopher Priest in conversation about being on the Granta list thirty years apart, and what this has meant for genre’s place in the literary world. I felt rather let down by this one because it turned into another iteration of Literary Fiction Hates Us and I am so bored of that argument. Also people were Wrong about Jane Austen (or Jane Eyre, the two appeared to be interchangeable?!); in mitigation, Priest was pleasingly caustic about Amis/McEwan/Jacobson. Later, there was the You Write Pretty Panel and I loved this. Writers arguing for sentences (by other people) they thought great before getting the audience to vote. Frances Hardinge had to take over because moderator Geoff Ryman had disappeared; luckily she was very good at it. Greer Gilman’s line of Marvell was clearly the best thing read out; Hardinge’s choice of a line (also very good, fine) from Jabberwocky won the audience vote, but as the Hugos so often teach us democracy is all wrong.

Saturday began with the Strange Horizons brunch, at which there was fruit (a few days of con and I’d begun to worry about scurvy) and tea and all the good people, before I went to my first panel, on South and South East Asian SFF. It was a small, crowded room and we all talked over each other and I thought it was great–hopefully the audience thought so also. Later in the day I went to “The State of British SF“–as with the Worldbuilding panel, I’d had my expectations raised by a really good discussion online. This one ended up being too much about the publishing and marketing sides of things (and not in a particularly interesting way) and then someone in the audience asked the question about women writing SF and it just got embarrassing. I moved on to a book launch in the terrifying South Gallery before my next panel, “Saving the World. All of it“, where I hope I was sufficiently coherent.

Here is a picture taken on Saturday morning:

I imagine it growing tiny legs, Luggage-like, and trotting away.

 

Here is the South Gallery, which I am convinced had no end. It’s blurry because I was shaking. With fear:

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Sunday began with painful cramps and I missed two panels I wanted to attend while I waited for painkillers to kick in. But when I finally staggered in, “Representation, Whitewashing and Internationalism in Fandom” was such a warm hug of a panel; everyone was smart and funny and bounced off each other so well. “The Gendered AI“, which I went to immediately after, was also very good, even when a member of the audience brought up Enthiran and used it to Explain Indian Culture (he was not Indian: it turns out we as a people are against saving the lives of women if said women are naked, or something). Being in a good mood I was mostly just amused that everyone in the room was taking the trouble to pronounce the title right(ish); in the North of the country we just dubbed it and called it Robot. Most of the day was spent meeting people and contemplating the mysterious bubbles that seemed to come out of nowhere to attach themselves to Will. I then had two back to back panels; first the “Writing Postcolonialism” one, where I got to recommend Sofia Samatar and Derek Walcott and was too frazzled to do the obvious thing and tell people to read We See a Different Frontier, and where Shaun Duke and E. Lily Yu were both amazing. Then “Fandom at the Speed of Thought“, which was slightly truncated because everyone wanted to get to the Hugos (and in any case we had a tiny audience) but surprised me by going in directions I didn’t expect in really thoughtful ways.

The Hugos happened, we snarked in the bar. Most categories were won by works or people I quite liked but had not been my first choice (Strange Horizons, “Selkie Stories” and Abigail Nussbaum were robbed, etc), but a thing that wasn’t Doctor Who won the Doctor Who category, Sofia Samatar won the not-a-Hugo, and we had twitter and cider. We missed Ethan very much (he was with us on twitter, and also in our hearts) so we made an effigy of him. Obviously.

Later that night Liz and I recorded video footage of an unusual feature of our hotel room.

Monday began with the panel I’d been stressing about since I received my Worldcon draft programme. We started (or the rest of the panel did, because I am no fun) with a mic check that turned into a not-very-good a capella session (when they finally make the Science Fiction fans do Glee crossover show it will not have me in it); when we started talking things got genuinely good and I think we could have gone on quite a bit longer. I suspect other good things are going to come out of that panel also, but more on that later. I spent most of the day at a rapidly growing table of people I like (as the crowd grew other tables were absorbed into that one); there was a lot of wine. I would have been quite happy for it to have gone on for another few days.

 

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I’m not great at dealing with crowds of people, or new people, or a lack of privacy, or really any of the things that come with spending a couple of weeks in buildings full of people and living out of a suitcase. I was dreading the whole thing. If I thought I was likely to enjoy any part of the experience, it was Nine Worlds, because of its relative smallness and friendliness and explicitly stated politics that I agree with. And yet I quite enjoyed Nine Worlds and I loved LonCon3.

Nine Worlds did a lot of things right, and there’s a lot I really liked about it. A room for quiltbag and poc fans (my people!); pronoun badges; gender-neutral loos; lists of panellists’ book recommendations; being able to make it clear whether you were able to be talked to/photographed. A weekend of this and I was genuinely a bit surprised to see pictures of myself appearing on twitter after LonCon panels I’d been on–it’s not something I find hugely bothersome, but coming after 9W it was particularly … visible.

On the other hand (and this is in large part because I wasn’t staying at the hotel and therefore couldn’t retreat to my room), at 9W I felt constant pressure to be switched on and interacting with people. There simply weren’t quiet spaces I could escape to and rooms full of strangers, however lovely said strangers might be, are still something of a nightmare. I had some great conversations with people (Zen! Alex! Ewa! Rhube! Sophia!) and I wish I’d spent more time with all of them, but the bits in between were not always great. This is one of the ways in which the hugeness of a worldcon worked in its favour for me. The Excel was big and impersonal enough (I think this may also be why I like airports, which are a thing the Excel resembles. Complete with frequent plane noises.) to absorb even the thousands of people who attended, and if I needed a space to be alone there were lots of them. And as it turned out I didn’t need that space; there was so much going on, much of it involving people I wanted to see, that I kept going for days and am still feeling weirdly energised. As well, the LonCon3 programme was a thing of wonder; here too the sheer size of it meant that I could choose at any point between multiple things that interested me, and individual panels could focus on a super-specialised subject (9W’s general “myth!”, “westerns!” etc meant more flexibility, but they also meant that discussions started from such a broad base that they couldn’t really move much beyond “so, why is this thing cool?” I caught myself speaking in platitudes more than once and being quoted, which was worse.)

Being a brown queer woman at a con was still not an eyeroll-free experience in either case. I don’t feel like the inclusiveness that is so consciously a part of 9W’s larger structure and part of specific tracks has quite made its way into all of their programming yet. I spent a lot of books panels as an audience member not raising the question of race or empire because who wants to be the brown person in the audience who keeps asking about race? (But it’s a panel about Westerns. But it’s a panel about Victorians studying Egypt). LonCon was conscious about diversity to the point that I know a few people of colour felt they were only on panels about not being white and/or western, and there were still a number of well meaning con-goers** whose “welcome” to all these new young fans was more cringeworthy than encouraging (shoutout to Will, who not only rescued me from one of these situations but did so with wine). Occasionally Men Told Me Things. I know there were a few fraught moments at panels. I was in one such fraught moment and I did not handle it well. But as far as I could tell, the organisers jumped in to fix things as soon as possible; I got the sense that people were really trying.

 

Highlights of this two weeks of con-going: too many to name. Mahvesh dealing with a patronising man in the most glorious of ways, Maureen’s disapproval of things, the mysterious Karen, several conversations with people I look up to (some of whom know who I am), Niall’s leg ears, discovering that people I like on Twitter are exactly the same in person, a famous writer’s opinions on the modern toilet system, finding a beloved bracelet I thought was lost (a LonCon miracle!), Sid’s biryani, Yoav’s pumpkin kuzhambu, Emily’s Ursula dress, sitting in the Excel and looking up at the rain and wondering when the see-through roof was going to cave in, the disgust of Erin’s cat, any number of embarrassing things that I said that have hopefully been forgotten by the people who were there to hear them. I wish I’d spent more time with almost everyone I met. I even miss Tiny Shower.

 

 

*Sorry Liz

**Which needs a hyphen, because I’m not sure what the verb “to congo” suggests but it’s probably not this.

July 7, 2014

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms

So, Jean of Storms (the subject of last weekend’s column) is really weird.

I’ve been skim-reading a couple of the Chalet School books this last few days, as you do when you have deadlines to meet, and before I’d always laughed a bit at how many near-death experiences the characters seem to have. But after Chalet School Reunion in particular, I’m now completely sold on the idea of these books as a form of horror narrative in which the landscape itself is hostile to the characters. As they’re being shown the local sights, one of the guests at the reunion laughingly asks why all the stories associated with these spots are near death experiences. Shortly afterwards, they all nearly die when the bit of land they’re standing on falls into a glacier moments after they have left it. In a couple of chapters, a cliff will crumble while a character is on it. Naturally there’s a nature-related near-death experience in Jean of Storms as well, but more important is the way in which this revelation makes the insertion of stock horror characters into the lives of healthy-minded schoolgirls make perfect sense. Nature herself is trying to kill these people; it’s only sensible to read their stories as horror.

 

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As a child I was expected to prepare for family holidays by doing research into the history (and culture, and art, and literature) of every new destination. As I grew older that research morphed into reading fiction around a place. I’m less diligent about it than I was at the age of eight, but it still gives me a thrill.

If I think of reading fiction about a place as the same sort of thing as reading fact, it’s because it’s not so much that a sense of the territory makes a book more real as it is the other way around. Fiction can be a lens through which to read a place, and when there’s a vast body of work set in a particular place those stories can layer themselves one atop the other. But we all know those places—the Londons and New Yorks of the world are so deeply embedded in literature, and literature is so deeply embedded in them, that switching between the ‘real’ and fictional city is easy and natural.

It’s the less used settings that interest me more, particularly when there are only a few competing narratives to clash with one another. One of my favourite examples of weird, almost diametrically opposite books coming out of the same place is Arundel Castle in England; it inspired the home of the sunny, folk-dancing-obsessed Earl and Countess of Kentisbury in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books for girls, and the heavy, gothic, over the top setting of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Recently I discovered that I now live near the home of another major author of books for girls; Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, best known as the author of the Chalet School series, a staple of my childhood. Brent-Dyer spent most of her life in the North of England but never wrote about it—or so it was thought until 1995, when a fan discovered Jean of Storms, a serialised novel for adults set outside Newcastle and published in the Shields Gazette in 1930.

A romance for adults, Jean of Storms contains within it a weird clash of genres that is particularly fascinating to a reader familiar with her larger body of work. The title character is a young woman of twenty-three who becomes the guardian of her niece from India when her sister-in-law dies. This is all very Secret Garden-ish; the child spoilt but goodhearted, the Indian ayah who cannot stop fussing about her “Missy-baba”. There are elements, also, of the school stories for which Brent-Dyer was already gaining a reputation when this serial was published—the dramatic sequence in a cave on the cliffs, the relationships with doctors and curates for which Jean and her friend Mollie are thoroughly unprepared (“as fresh-minded on such subjects as they had been as school girls of fourteen”, Brent-Dyer informs us, as if emotional immaturity were a desirable thing), the strong community of women.

But underneath all of this is something more sinister, that belongs to a different genre altogether, and that manifests itself in the form of Morag, Jean’s terrifying Calvinist cook-housekeeper, and in Mollie’s obsessive, malevolent housekeeper. These characters seem to have wandered in from a gothic novel; as has the landscape, all treacherous rocks and dramatic waves crashing against cliffs. The book’s cover, in its Bettany Press edition, reflects this weird mix of genres—it bears a photograph of country-dancers, but of the old, black-and-white sort, where everyone looks wary of the camera.

Above, I spoke of having multiple, conflicting literary lenses through which to view a place. Jean of Storms contains those conflicting lenses within it; school story, imperial children’s tale, gothic romance. It makes for an uncomfortable and genuinely weird read, but perhaps more importantly, it has made the nice seaside town I’m familiar with into something more akin to Wuthering Heights.

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January 12, 2013

Deaths in Venice

It’s been six months, and so this is the penultimate “Paper Trails” column for the National Geographic Traveller (India). It was out in the December issue of the magazine. Short version: I am flippant about Thomas Mann.

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The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, according to a number of unreliable sources, was given its name by the English Romantic poet Lord Byron on a visit to the city. The bridge leads to the New Prison, and though it is enclosed has windows so that convicts could take one last look (and presumably sigh) at the beauty of the city before being incarcerated. One legend associated with the bridge is that couples who sail under it together and kiss at sunset will be in love forever – this forms the plot of the 1979 Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane film, A Little Romance. If a bridge that carried convicts to jail seems a rather inappropriate venue for such activities, there’s probably something profound to be said about tragedy and love always going together.

That is certainly the case in Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered. Caudwell’s four comic crime novels (about a group of barristers who solve mysteries under the guidance of a pedantic Oxford scholar) are some of the funniest in existence and have nowhere near the following they deserve. In this, the first, Julia Larwood decides to go on an art tour of Venice that she cannot afford instead of staying home and paying her taxes. Immediately she meets and falls for a fellow tourist, an unimaginably beautiful young man named Ned. Her attempted seduction seems doomed to fail (not least because Ned is accompanied by his boyfriend) but he finally succumbs to her charms. Later that day he is found dead and it appears Julia is the only person who had the opportunity to kill him.

Beautiful young men might have cause to avoid Venice altogether. The German author Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice also features a protagonist, Aschenbach, who is besotted by a boy named Tadzio with a face like “the noblest moment of Greek sculpture”. As Venice is overtaken by an epidemic of cholera Aschenbach chooses to stay so that he can continue to gaze upon this perfect youth. For obvious reasons this is a terrible idea; it’s unclear if Tadzio succumbs to cholera, but Aschenbach himself dies at the end.

Death in Venice has been adapted into multiple films as well as an opera. For reasons that ought to be obvious adaptations of the book tend to make Tadzio a little older – in the original novella he’s only about fourteen. But the book is also so famous and so influential that later works set in Venice often seem to be paying tribute to Mann’s novella.

Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Ganymede” is an obvious tribute, in which an English academic becomes smitten with a Venetian waiter. Apparently du Maurier used “Venice” as a code word for her own attraction towards women. She wrote another story set in the same city; “Don’t Look Now” which was turned into a film in 1973. In this a couple mourning a recently-dead child comes into contact with a strange pair of sisters. It may not be as obviously related to Mann’s work as “Ganymede” is, but here again there is love twinned with tragedy and an uncomfortable sense that we’re on the verge of the supernatural.

Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers has this in common with both du Maurier and Mann. An English couple on holiday in Venice are trying to rekindle their relationship. Colin and Mary spend most of their days in a dreamlike haze, getting lost in the city’s confusing streets. Then they meet Robert, a Venetian, and his wife Caroline. Robert and Caroline show a disconcerting interest in the couple and in Colin’s beauty in particular. Predictably, things end badly.

A story with a comparatively happy ending is that of Alexander McCall Smith’s German philologist and academic, Moritz-Maria von Igenfeld in Portugese Irregular Verbs. On a visit to Venice to mend a broken heart von Igenfeld notices a family staying at the same hotel. He pays particular attention to the beautiful teenaged son, a boy named “Tadseuz”. He also notices the suspicious insistence of many Venetians, seemingly apropos of nothing, that there is nothing wrong with the city’s water supply. He investigates, and soon learns that some form of radioactivity has seeped into the canals. But von Igenfeld is no Aschenbach; he very sensibly scans all his food for radioactivity, warns Tadseuz’s mother that her son has become “un peu radio-actif” (I cannot vouch for von Igenfeld’s French but I laughed) and leaves the city.

McCall Smith spoils it all at the end by having von Igenfeld think of Thomas Mann and how similar the two stories are; it’s a terrible shame to ruin a clever joke with a crude explanation. Yet it’s true that all the stories I mention here are in a way paying tribute to Mann’s powerful work. Venice is often talked of by those who do not belong to it with a flood of clichés, as if all that the city had to offer were gondolas and cheesy romance. Mann gives us another literary tradition through which to see the city. It isn’t a particularly happy one, but it’s one in which love, beauty and grief are all intertwined

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October 2, 2012

Here be Myrmidons

On twitter earlier today I worried that my columns for the National Geographic Traveller seemed more likely to dissuade people from travel than otherwise – in the October issue (out now!) I discuss the usefulness of cruise ships to potential murderers, and November and December’s projected pieces aren’t particularly cheerful either. In last month’s column, of which a longer version is reproduced below, I go a step further and suggest that travel writing and travel writers themselves are inherently suspicious. I’m fortunate to have a tolerant editor.

The Hav books and The Islanders are glorious, complex things, and I’d love to write more about them free of time and wordcount constraints.  An earlier version of this piece contained a section on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; in retrospect it’s probably a good thing that I left it out.

 

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The publication of Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav caused some confusion among readers. Written in 1985, this travel narrative took the form of a series of dispatches from a historical city; twenty years later Morris would revisit the city with the publication of Hav of the Myrmidons. Ursula K. Le Guin explains in her introduction to my edition of Morris’ two Hav books that aspiring travellers were surprised by the difficulty of getting to Hav. Why anyone should have wanted to visit a place that was, according to Morris, in the throes of a violent revolution remains a mystery, but the real problem was that Hav had never existed.

To set a book in a fictional place is nothing new. Fantasy writers have been doing it for years, providing elaborate maps, family trees and histories for worlds that never existed. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, know that The Lord of the Rings was only a miniscule part of his universe. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has its own creation myth as well as multiple entire languages created by the author.

All this takes dedication (and a certain level of obsession). But to create a new city in our own world is something else entirely. For Hav to be plausible, Morris has to rewrite all of human history. She inserts the city into the Iliad and the Bible; she makes it an important point on the Silk Route, and the site of an historic meeting between the Attaturk and Lawrence of Arabia. Ibn Battuta writes of the city, as does Marco Polo.

Marco Polo is a useful clue here to the nature of Hav. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has the Italian explorer describing to Kublai Khan a host of fictional cities, each a meditation on the words and signs we use to experience, think of and talk about other places.

The invocation of Marco Polo is not the only way in which Hav flaunts its fictionality. Morris rather cheekily has a character express indignation at the marginalisation of the city in the histories of the writer Braudel, and later has her narrator describe it as looking “like a city of pure fiction”.

It’s tempting to see the Hav books as straightforward imitations of travel writing, but of a place that doesn’t exist. But the “Jan Morris” who is the narrator of a travelogue is not the same as the Jan Morris who is the author of two works of fiction. Sometimes it seems clear that “Jan” is a creation of parody. Both books are full of genre-specific cliché – native bazaars, inefficient foreign bureaucracies, lost glories of the past, the inscrutability of Chinese immigrants. “Jan” is constantly attempting to write herself into this history; she strives to find historical affinities between her own  (Welsh) background and Hav’s early Kretev settlers, insists that she has inside knowledge that is unavailable to others, and shows contempt of other tourists whose experience of the city is less ‘authentic’ than her own. We know this character; we see her in travel literature all the time.

No reader, even one confused by Last Letters from Hav, would mistake Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago for a place on earth. The Dream Archipelago is the setting for many of Priest’s works, including 2011’s The Islanders, which presents itself as a kind of gazette. The introduction explains the geography of the planet, with large landmasses in the north and south and a belt of islands scattered across the tropical and temperate zones of its single ocean. This is followed by a series of short chapters, each about one of the islands. They are arranged in alphabetical order; each contains essential details about the island’s geographical peculiarities, its currency and its history. This seems comfortably factual, but we know from the beginning that things won’t be that easy. Chaster Kammeston, the supposed writer of this introduction, points out that the book simply cannot contain every island in the archipelago when experts cannot even be sure how many there are. There are also problems of islands with similar names and co-ordinates, of different forms of island patois that give the same name to different things (or different names to the same thing), so that it’s hard to be sure if one island is distinct from another.

Then too there are cartographical fictions that are made on purpose. We learn that the island of Tremm, off the south coast of Mequa, does not appear on any map. This island is a secret military base, and there’s no official record of its existence. Later we learn of the visual distortions caused by the planet’s winds, so that the aerial view of some places changes according to circumstances – an effect that calls every map into question. These details that undermine everything we can know about the islands are scattered across the book.

Most disconcerting of all are the hints that the book itself is not all it claims to be (and what sort of name for a gazette is The Islanders, anyway?). Kammeston, in the introduction, says that the book is well-meaning and “will do no harm”. Yet his introduction seems less and less likely as we read through the book and find that it implicates Kammeston himself in a murder, and later contains news of his death.

Though they both write travelogues of fictional places, Morris and Priest use very different strategies. Morris immerses us in the certainty of really knowing a place, then hits us with the revelation that our knowledge isn’t real. Priest adopts the most fact-centred of formats but undermines it constantly. Places cannot be known, both books suggest. All travel writing is a lie.

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September 21, 2012

When life gives you Robinsons

As some of you may already know, I now have a monthly column in the new Indian edition of the National Geographic Traveller. It’s called “Paper Trails”, and in the three months that I’ve been writing for it I’ve managed to quote Derek Walcott, not quote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, talk about the Chalet School and inform everyone that travel writing is a lie.

I’ll be putting all the columns up eventually. For now, here’s a slightly longer version of August’s piece on robinsonades and the amazing generosity of desert islands.

 

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The first great shipwreck survivor in Western literature is Robinson Crusoe. In Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719, the seafaring protagonist finds himself stranded on a deserted island where, with the entire contents of his ship at his disposal, he manages to live for a number of years. The island provides him with goats to domesticate, fruits to eat, and even a native servant for company.

Robinson Crusoe seems to be the book that all future island-dwellers have read. A century later, in 1812, Johann Wyss’s Swiss family jokingly give themselves Crusoe’s name. The men who land on Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse in 1874, meanwhile, seem familiar with Wyss’ work, and mention the Robinsons’ habit of giving various parts of their island fanciful names. The island survival story would draw so much from Defoe’s pioneering novel, that in 1731 (only a little over a decade since Robinson Crusoe) the German writer Gisander named the genre the “robinsonade”.

Robinsonades generally involve people stranded in deserted places who must struggle against nature to survive. Often, the characters in these stories cultivate the land; many of them settle there for good and begin to populate it. All of this sounds as if the shipwreck story were a constant struggle between man and nature. Yet this is not always the case.

At the beginning of C.S Lewis’ Prince Caspian (first published in 1949), four children are magically transported to an island where there appears to be no other sign of life. At first, the children have no idea where they are. Though they realise that they might starve to death, the thought is quickly dismissed. “It’s like being shipwrecked,” remarks Edmund, the younger boy. “In the books, they always find springs of clear, fresh water on the island. We’d better go and look for them.” There is no need to worry; these characters are familiar enough with the robinsonade to know that nature will provide. In fact,far from islands being the site of an intense struggle between man and the environment, many books give the impression that they are among the most benevolent places in the world. To be cut off from human society seems more beneficial than not.

Take Wyss’ Der Schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Family Robinson). The island upon which the family find themselves stranded immediately provides them with safe harbour and giant trees for building in. Soon afterwards they will discover an astonishing and geographically improbable range of edible plants and animals. When they need shelter the island not only offers up caves but fills them with useful rock salt. So wonderful are the conditions of their exile that when the family are granted the opportunity to go home most of them choose not to avail of it.

R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858) saw three teenaged boys shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific. Decades later in 1954, William Golding would write a much less compassionate island book, Lord of the Flies, as a counter to Ballantyne’s novel. The three boys work together in what Golding seemed to think was improbable camaraderie for a group of teenagers cut off from civilisation. Again, the island provides everything they could possibly need – food (coconuts, fruits, fish and wild pigs), fibre from which to make clothes, and candlenuts to provide light. Over and over, the boys compare their island home to paradise, and when danger comes, as it does in the form of sharks, pirates and cannibals, it is always from across the sea. Here human civilisation, rather than nature, is the greatest source of savagery. Wyss and Ballantyne’s books are both steeped in Christianity, so there’s a sense not only of the island as unsullied Eden, but of man’s ownership over all of nature.

The Romans believed in the genius loci, a protective spirit that was associated with a particular place. The protagonists of Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse might well be forgiven for thinking that the islandin question had such a spirit, and one that had their interests at heart. On the surface, Verne’s novel seems more realistic about the difficulties of nature – here there are no convenient caves, and edible wildlife does not fall so readily into the palms of our heroes’ hands. More than most robinsonades, Verne centres the ingenuity of humans; his characters build a foundry and prepare blasting powder with the few resources at their disposal. Yet something seems to be protecting them, lighting fires to guide them home, killing dangerous animals and malevolent pirates, and even providing medicines and tobacco to those who need them. It’s almost disappointing when the reader learns that there is human agency behind all of this. But then, perhaps the provision of a benevolent protector is just another instance of the island’s bounty?

The first island many of my generation encountered in fiction was the one in Kirrin Bay, owned by George of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and first encountered in Five on a Treasure Island (1942). Kirrin Island has been the site of at least one shipwreck that we know of, but for the Five it is a place of refuge. The island has a convenient way of manifesting exactly what the plot needs at any particular time; when the family are in financial difficulties it produces lost treasure, when the children are hiding from kidnappers it has a hard-to-find cave. At a crucial moment it manifests a system of underwater passages that lead to the mainland. Blyton’s The Secret Island also has children fleeing the adult world for safety. The children escape an abusive aunt and uncle for an idyllic life on a hidden island.

Islands in these novels do pose the occasional danger. Wyss’s family encounter a boa constrictor, and Verne’s island is eventually destroyed in a rather spectacular volcano eruption. And yet, judging by what books have taught me, I’d feel safer on a desert island than in a lot of places.

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June 6, 2012

Kishwar Desai, Origins of Love

I had a short review of Kishwar Desai’s new novel in Saturday’s Indian Express.

Aruni Kashyap has a piece in the  Assam Times that is partly about his journey away from, and back into writing as an Assamese writer. Among other things he speaks of writing to an imaginary audience to whom he felt the need to explain Assam.

The thing that interested me most about Origins of Love (otherwise not destined to be one of my favourite books this year) is this question of audience. Who does Desai think she’s writing for? At times I suspected the book of doing something rather clever in centring the Indian experience; the white British characters are reduced to cultural stereotypes. Kate, for example, got pregnant in her teens: “She didn’t want to drop out of school or be stuck at home juggling milk bottles and living off benefits like so many of her friends. Besides, Terry (or Jack?) had disappeared quite soon after their evening together”. (Tuhin Sinha, author of That Thing Called LOVE would probably refer to this teenage sexing as “the domain of the prurient West”) The audience is expected not to know, for example, that “the different communities were quite divided in London. The Indians in Southall, the Bangladeshis on Brick Lane…”.  (Useful tip: apparently if you are a lady sitting in pubs in Southall locals will be scandalised, but you can charm a bartender into pouring more generous drinks by swapping stories of “back home”). Shops and labels are namechecked (Agent Provocateur and Harrods, anyway). Parallel to this treating the British as aliens that need explaining, there’s a sort of India Shining narrative. Subhash and his wife Anita are an “elegant couple – certainly a far cry from the gruff and often crumpled doctors he had dealt with in the NHS back home”. The sperm bank in Gurgaon is far more impressive than the one in London. The old empire has declined, everything about Britain is a bit tawdry.

But then suddenly we’re doing things the other way round – the tourists are wearing FabIndia clothes, cows are eating plastic bags on which they will choke to death, ‘locals’ take autorickshaws and there is a completely unnecessary explanation of the Ambassador car. So who is this for?

The other interesting thing about the book is that for five minutes I thought it might be science fiction.

None of these things serve to make the novel any good though.

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A child conceived via in vitro fertilisation is found, mysteriously, to be HIV-positive. Her parents are dead, her family untraceable, and the surrogate mother has mysteriously disappeared.

Origins of Love consists of multiple individual plotlines woven together. There are the Pandeys, proprietors of a hospital in Gurgaon offering assisted reproductive technologies; Kate and Ben, an English couple who desperately want a child, though for different reasons; Sonia, one of the surrogate mothers and Diwan Nath Mehta, a customs officer who becomes embroiled in an attempt to make money from the embryos.  Tying all of these plots together is Simran Singh, the social worker who formed the focus of Desai’s earlier, Costa winning novel Witness the Night. Simran’s is the only thread of the story to be told in first person; it is she who, with the reader, pieces together these stories to work out what is going on.

And there’s a lot to work out. Origins of Love attempts to be both an exploration of a social issue (that of surrogacy in India) and a rather crowded mystery/thriller. But it soon becomes obvious that Desai is more interested in the issue than the story. Subplots that might in other circumstances have been entire novels are gestured at and then rather half-heartedly wrapped up; such as that of Ben, whose guilt and curiously over an ancestor’s actions in India lead him into perpetuating the same set of dynamics, or Renu, a rising politician who plans to use her child for her political ends. The couple around whom the mystery revolves, Susan and Ben Oldham, barely get any page time, making the various revelations about them rather lacking in impact.

As a discussion of the various issues around surrogacy, the book is more thorough. The lack of agency of the women who agree to become surrogate mothers is a point constantly made – even when characters make the original decision for themselves (Sonia thinks that the money will help her to escape an abusive boyfriend and return to her family), control is almost immediately wrested from them. The upper classes are not let off – the Pandeys may be sympathetic characters on the whole, but we are still treated to uncomfortable scenes in which Dr Subhash Pandey evaluates potential surrogates who can be most easily fobbed off as middle-class on ignorant foreigners. Occasionally Desai is too heavy-handed in the effort to make the reader see the point of this, and puts together the evidence of what the text has already shown us into convenient expository paragraphs.

This is a problem throughout. Show-don’t-tell is perhaps the most hackneyed literary criticism there is, but there is some truth to it. Unfortunately, Desai explains everything. Characters are reintroduced as if we had forgotten them in the last fifty pages, and Subhash’s discomfort with homosexual couples having children is something that must be told to us again and again. This need to explain is at its worst when it comes to the international aspects of the plot – it’s hard to tell who her intended audience is when the author is at one moment explaining London’s racial divides to the reader, and at the next explaining that ‘locals’ in Delhi would travel by autorickshaw, and that Ambassador cars with red lights on the top indicate an important person.

If Desai finds her voice at any point it is with the Diwan Nath Mehta plot. Mehta is a fundamentally decent man caught up in larger matters that he never anticipated and there’s something rather exaggerated and larger than life about the world as he perceives it. This makes for great satire, in the conspiracy theories of Mehta’s boss and in the form of caste-obsessed sperm bank officials who inform us that they are “well stocked on Brahmins”.  But there are also hints of a touching romance. This is in sharp contrast to Simran’s overwritten sections in which we’re given plenty of details (down to the colour of her underwear) but little in the way of feeling.

The problem with issue-based fiction is always going to be that it’s more about the issue than the fiction. As a book about surrogacy in India Origins of Love does exactly what it needs to. As a novel, however, it is incomplete, half-hearted and seems to think very little of its readers.

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May 3, 2012

Some fantastic voyages

Last weekend’s Mint Lounge was a travel special, and I was asked to talk about some of my favourite journeys in fantasy. Hopefully I don’t need to clarify that I wouldn’t necessarily want to be on all of these journeys; but they’re lovely, and they’ve stuck with me.

A link to the Lounge version here, or a slightly edited piece below.

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It’s a cliché of the genre that most works of fantasy begin with a map; from Tolkien’s beautiful depiction of the route to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit to the steampunk-inspired beginning of HBO’s Game of Thrones. A big part of the joy of secondary world fantasy is in exploring the worlds created; world-building may often serve as an excuse for shoddy writing, but it can also be a joyful thing in itself.

Many works of fantasy are built around a quest of some sort. The quest is one of the most basic forms of narrative there is, but it also provides an excuse to further explore these worlds. There are people who complain that, for example, the bulk of The Lord of the Rings is basically a long walk through Middle-Earth. This is absolutely true, and it’s wonderful if you like that sort of thing (most of the time, I do). But the fantasy journey can contain scenes of genuine wonder even for the unbeliever, and I think the examples below achieve just that.

 

Ged’s Pursuit of the Shadow:

In Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea a young wizard, unleashes a terrifying shadow that haunts him for long after. Eventually he comes to the realisation that he must face the thing that he has released into the world, and he follows it into unchartered realms of the ocean. Many fantastic journeys are made memorable by an undercurrent of fear. Characters are pursued by enemies, or face the knowledge that there is danger all around them. Ged’s pursuit of his shadow is completely different. The hunted becomes the hunter, and a sense of triumph colours the whole venture.

With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.

 

Arthur Gordon Pym goes South:

The voyage documented in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is not one that a sensible reader would wish to be on, replete as it is with shipwrecks, cannibalism, and ghost ships. Eventually most of the ship’s crew is slaughtered by a tribe of savages.

This is all very unpleasant, but the book’s most memorable journey is the small section after this litany of horrors has come to an end. Pym, Peters, and the ‘native’ they have taken captive drift further towards the Antarctic in a canoe. As they travel South the narrative takes on a numb, detached quality. Yet “we were entering upon a region of novelty and wonder”; the water turns white and warm, and white ash occasionally rains down upon the travellers. And then, in a sudden burst of activity, the boat rushes towards a cataract, a chasm opens, and Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow”. And on this weird, ambiguous note, the book abruptly ends. Pym’s journey is no one’s idea of a dream vacation, but it’s impossible to forget.

 

…and Caspian goes East:

C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian embarks upon a quest to find the seven lords who remained faithful to his father. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is most people’s favourite Narnia book. There are echoes here of The Odyssey, with its perilous seas and series of strange and magical islands, and of Coleridge in a nightmarish episode in which an albatross figures strongly.

Yet the best part of the voyage comes after all islands have been left behind. In a way this is the reverse of Pym’s journey above. In both cases the sea becomes warmer and calmer, but where Poe’s book speaks of drowsiness, Lewis gives the impression of extreme clarity. The sun becomes bigger and brighter; where Poe’s ocean turns milky, here the water is so clear that entire civilisations of mer-people can be observed fathoms below. And when the water does turn white, it is because it is covered in flowers.

We never find out what is at the utter East; we are left with the image of Reepicheep the mouse paddling his coracle over the wave at the end of the world, “very black against the lilies”. It is enough.

 

Dhrun in the Forest of the Tantravalles:

About half of the plots in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books involve people travelling on one quest or another. And yet Dhrun’s journey in the first book, Suldrun’s Garden, stands out.

The eldest child of princess Suldrun, Dhrun is fated to rule the Elder Isles. But he is kidnapped by the fairies, and a changeling left in his place. After a childhood spent among the fairies of Thripsey Shee, Dhrun is cast out to make his own way in the world. To help him he has a magic purse and a sword that comes when called. But he is also cursed to carry seven years of bad luck.

There’s something of the fairytale to Dhrun’s story (as he insouciantly defrauds trolls and defeats ogres before joining a medicine show), and Vance makes use of a droll, courtly style that is reminiscent of Perrault. But the real wonder here is in Vance’s ability to tell a genuinely dark story full of things like slavery and sexual abuse and still infuse the whole with the luminousity of something remembered from early childhood.

My God, it’s full of elephants:

An elderly hero is on his way to the city of the Gods, which he plans to blow up. What he doesn’t realise is that if he succeeds it will mean the end of the world. Someone has to stop him, but he already has a massive head start.

This is the problem that confronts the characters in Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby’s Discworld graphic novel The Last Hero. The solution, naturally, is to build a spaceship powered by specially-fed dragons, fly off the edge of the world, and count on gravity (or whatever the equivalent of gravity is for a flat world on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle) to make sure that ‘down’ eventually turns into ‘up’.  Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. This is expected when you have a mad genius, a cowardly wizard and a simian (“Ankh-Morpork, we have an orangutan…”) on board. There’s a moon landing, all sorts of shenanigans involving flatulent lunar dragons, and somehow it all ends happily enough.

 

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May 22, 2011

Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry

My Left of Cool piece this week was about the travel guide Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry.
Here is a famous citizen of Molvanîa:

And here is the column.

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One of the many wonderful things that Youtube has given me over the years is “supersonic electronic”, a song about romance and interstellar travel by Zlad!. (Sample: “Hey love crusader, I want to be your space invader; for you I will descend the deepest moon crater”). At the end of the song Zlad! salutes his supposed homeland, Molvanîa. I was curious about this country and wished to find out more.

Molvanîa is the subject of a 2003 travel guide (of the Jetlag Travel Guides series), Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. In this volume, experienced travellers like Philippe Miseree and Andy ‘The Animal’ Wilson explore the major cities of Molvanîa, providing prospective tourists with useful information regarding the hotels (equipped with spittoons and occasionally furniture), the cuisine (centred around pork fat, beetroot and garlic brandy) , and cultural activities (consisting in the main of pornography or peasants beating donkeys).

Located somewhere in central Europe, the country features some diverse geographical features. The Molvanîan Alps to the South, the Steppes to the East, the Great Central Valley (home to the capital city of Lutenblag) and the Western Plateau. It has a fascinating past. During its eventful history this small country has been invaded by Goths, Tatars, Turks, Huns, Balts, Lombards and militant Spanish nuns (the Romans were scared off by a description of Molvanîan women). In the 20th century, buoyed by liquorice and parsnip production, Molvanîa entered World War II on the side of the Germans. In the post-war period it came under Soviet control. That all changed with the fall of the Lutenblag Wall (due to shoddy construction) in 1982.

Molvanîa has had its share of great personalities. Djar Reumerten, the country’s most famous philosopher, is known for having proved conclusively that he did not exist. There is scientist Willjm Krejkzbec, a Nobel Prize near-winner whose “academic fame has been largely overshadowed by his much-publicised interest in sado-masochism (see ‘Museums’ section p106)”. Szlonko Busjbusj, the father of modern Molvanîa, reduced the alphabet by 33 letters, made wheelbarrows legal tender, and has a number of bridges, rivers, roads, and a communicable disease named after him. The country’s patron saint, St. Fyodor, is best known for drinking an entire vat of communion wine, and occasionally fasting for up to three hours.

Molvanîa is fictional; a hodge-podge of clichés and jokes about Eastern Europe. This is certainly not the first travelogue to focus on a fictional country. A notable predecessor is Malcolm Bradbury’s Why Come To Slaka?, purportedly written by the politburo for travellers to an imaginary soviet state (Slaka had previously been the setting for Bradbury’s novel Rates of Exchange). Bradbury’s travelogueis about satirising propaganda quite as much as it doesthe genre of travel writing. Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry is less ambitious, taking its format from the more easily recognisable travelogues with which we’re all familiar. Chapters on the major cities are divided into sections about transport, accommodation, dining, shopping and entertainment, and these are all subdivided into luxury, mid-range and budget options. The back flap carries a guide to the symbols used in the book, which include such markers as “Nudist camp” (symbolised by a pair of binoculars), and “Devil worship” (a pentacle) as well as more ordinary ones such as “entertainment” (a hangman) and “public toilet” (a lit cigarette). The last pages of the book also advertise other works in the series, such as Let’s Go Bongoswana, Viva San Sombrero! and Surviving Mustaschistan.

The book never seems sure what sort of humour it is aiming for. It careens wildly between hilariously earnest praise and snarky comment – the latter generally beating the reader over the head with its humour. The spoof titles above are an example of what’s wrong here: Surviving Mustaschistan? Was that really the best they could do? It’s things like this that keep Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry merely amusing instead of outright hilarious. The Zlad! song was better.

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