In Thailand I started with the backpacker novels. Alex Garland’s satirical classic, The Beach, is a useful guide on how not to travel: cocoon yourself with other Westerners, see little of the country, experience nothing beyond the beaches and drugs, never interact with locals, and feel smug and superior all the while.
Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun is more inspirational, although I had covered much the same ground as the narrator by the time I read it. The novel well captures the moodswings of long-term travel: the conceit, one minute, that you have got some rare insight into the local culture, and the realisation, the next, that you know nothing; and the way that you go from being forever impatient to move on to the next town, the next country, the next continent, to hardly being bothered to leave the guesthouse for days on end.
I had never heard of John Burdett until I found one of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels in a book exchange on Phi Phi. They are just detective stories, but then you could say that about Chandler too, and they are written well enough and contain more insight into Thai culture than a thousand pieces about “Nineteen Things to Do in Bangkok,” or whatever.
James Eckardt’s The Year of Living Stupidly careers from Bangkok via Phuket to Phnom Penh and took me across the border from Thailand to Cambodia. Once there, and in a radical shift of mood, I started reading Loung Ung’s harrowing account of a childhood under the Khmer Rouge, First They Killed My Father.
In Saigon, it was predictably Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; and that led me on to a bootleg copy of Michael Maclear’s The Ten Thousand Day War, which I bought from a beach vendor in Nha Trang, and in turn to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, which tells the familiar story from the forgotten perspective of the North Vietnamese conscript: not the fanatical communist usually portrayed but a scared, cynical kid, like the GI’s on the other side.
In Laos, it was Another Quiet American, Brett Dakin’s account of the two years he spent living in Vientiane and working for the Lao Tourism Authority. It was going on fifteen years since he had written it and it was equally remarkable to see how much had changed as how much had stayed the same.
I turned to old favourites in the States: Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in Las Vegas and Kerouac’s Big Sur in San Francisco. (I had read On the Road for the umpteenth time a few months before.)
Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries and Matthew Parris’s Inca Kola saw me through Peru and Bolivia, and I had just started Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits when I crossed into Chile. Her memoir, My Invented Country, and Marc Cooper’s Pinochet and Me kept my head in Santiago when I got home.
Hemingway was inevitable in Kenya and Tanzania: The Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Then in Malawi, Jack Mapanje’s And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night taught me a lot I did not know about the paranoid regime of Hastings Banda, while Paul Theroux’s The Lower River made me paranoid about present-day Malawi.
I had read NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, set against the eviction of white farmers and beating of opposition supporters, before I went to Zimbabwe, and read Doris Lessing’s African Laughter – written in the early, optimistic Mugabe years – while I was there. I topped that up after I came home with Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa and The Fear and Alex Fuller’s Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight. In South Africa, then, I read JM Coetzee’s Booker-prize-winning Disgrace and, around the time I saw the cell on Robben Island where he started writing it, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.
Ian Buruma’s Japanese Mirror is dated now but still relevant. It explained idiosyncrasies like the wearing of white gloves by police officers, train dispatchers, taxi drivers and so on (a symbol of purity, apparently). I had moved on from Tokyo by the time I started Alan Brown’s novel, Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, but whenever I picked it, I was taken back and reminded of details like the cans of hot coffee in vending machines on every street corner.
I was a Law student, like Raskolnikov, when I first read Crime and Punishment, but I bought another copy in St Petersburg at the iconic House of Books on Nevsky Prospekt and re-read it as I walked the streets which Dostoevsky alludes to. By the time I got to Moscow, I had moved on to Martin Sixmith’s compelling history simply named Russia.
Now, freshly home from there, I have a pile of Bulgakovs, Gogols, Pasternaks and Solzhenitsyns to work through.
© Richard Senior 2015