Book & Video: Photographing Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, is one of those books which you know of and have an idea of what they are about but then never quite get around to reading.  Then, when you do, you wonder why it took you so long.  

Tracks is Davidson’s account of her 2,700 kilometre, 9 month solo journey across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog.  Although raised on a cattle farm from the age of four, Davidson had few practical skills which would assist her and so she spent two years, including doing a dummy run of 300km before attempting her longer 1977 journey.  

I had understood freedom and security. The need to rattle the foundations of habit. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.

I’ve seen Tracks on the shelves in bookshops and referred to in the lists of best or favourite travel books but, if I’m honest, hadn’t paid it too much attention until I recently came across a video on Deskbound Traveller, the site of Michael Kerr, journalist with The Daily Telegraph.

The video is a TEdX video of Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer assigned to photograph Davidson’s journey which he did by periodically locating her along her route.  He would then spend a few days with her before leaving, not knowing whether she would be alive the next time he came to look.

Rick Smolan’s talk is an unassuming yet jaw dropping insight to a quite extraordinary journey and watching this video has ensured that Tracks is now firmly on my ever-growing to read list.  A separate book of Ricka Molan’s photographs is also available:

Smolan’s TEDX talk seems to be a re-run of a better edited version with more imagery available on National Geographic‘s website and also on Youtube:

Throughout the trip I kept saying to Robyn you need to keep a journal because someday you’re going to want to write a book about this and she said why do you have to turn everything into a product like why can’t you just experienced things and not always be filtering it and recording it and documenting it like you’re never there because you’re always outside looking in at it so when she called me and said she written a book I was like you’re kidding me…

Despite initial reluctance, Robyn obviously went on to write about her journey.  A National Geographic article appeared in 1978 and the book followed in 1980, published by Jonathan Cape.  Tracks was awarded the first Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980.  It is in good company as the list of subsequent winners of that award (it has been the Dolman Best Travel Book Award since 2006) reads like a who’s who of travel writing from the last 40 years.  

In the course of writing Tracks, Davidson became friends with Doris Lessing and, according to Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, also with travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who introduced Davidson to Salman Rushdie, an encounter which resulted in Rushdie leaving his wife for the woman Chatwin called “my friend the ‘camel lady'”.   

There are videos available online with Robyn Davidson talking about her experience which are worth watching.  Davidson has interesting observations on the objectification of her trip by others as well as nomadic culture and, in this interview, tips on how to work with camels:

MIKE SMITH: What would you give to the audience as Robyn’s three tips on how to work camels?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Watch the camel day and night, watch its behaviour and learn how it works. The first thing is just watch them endlessly. Adore them, but never let them take an inch or they will take a mile. And don’t be afraid to beat the hell out of them.

Robyn Davidson has written other travel books, including a book of essays, Travelling Light, Desert Places, about nomadic cultures and an anthology of travel writing published by Picador, Journeys.

Article: Paris Review interview with Jan Morris

 

I don’t consider my books travel books. I don’t like travel books, as I said before. I don’t believe in them as a genre of literature. 

Celebrated travel writer Jan Morris on not being a travel writer.  Insightful and entertaining 1989 interview from the Paris Review.

This is a broad discussion covering a range of Jan Morris’ writing from throughout her career as well as her own journeys, external and internal, encompassing parts of her military service, writing career and change of gender.     

Whether familiar with her work or not, this is an interesting interview about several of Jan Morris’ works including the Sultan in Oman, her writings about cities, Spain and, of course, Venice.   She also talks about her non-fiction writing including her experiences on Everest, Conundrum (about her change of gender) and also her works and thoughts about histories and in particular the Pax Britannica Trilogy.    

I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. 

Of particular note are Jan Morris’ observations about travel writing and the relationship between her work and fiction including her thoughts on why she doesn’t consider her own writing to be travel books and why reading travel books by others haven’t always prepared her for journeys to those places.     

Great portrait of a varied, full and fascinating life and a great author.

The interview is also available in audio on Youtube:

 

Video & Photo: Steve McCurry photos at Beetles + Huxley

Like many photojournalists, he’s a man driven by an insatiable desire to travel, to experience to explore and to take photographs and to get beneath the surface of a place

This March, London photography gallery, Beetles + Huxley, is holding a retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work.

McCurry, doesn’t really need an introduction, having produced many iconic images including Afghan Girl, the 1985 National Geographic cover shot which is widely regarded as one of the most famous images in the world.  (The original National Geographic story is here and the journey to locate the unidentified Afghan girl 20 years later is here.)

Some of McCurry’s photos (most of which are also in the exhibition) are on Beetle + Huxley’s website, along with a biography.  Beetles + Huxley has also published an interesting and short video introduction to McCurry’s work: 

 

Book: Brave New Burma by Nic Dunlop

Brave New Burma, by Nic Dunlop

Dewi Lewis Publishing (2013) 

I understood so little about Burma and I felt the only way to really get to grips with it was not only to read about it but to travel. . . It grew out of a quest to really understand how a deeply unpopular regime could hold on to power.  

This is how Nic Dunlop explained his interest in Burma to BBC journalist Fergal Keane at the May 2013 launch of Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club in London.

A significant challenge for Dunlop in undertaking his quest was the difficulty of capturing life in Burma under a totalitarian regime:

For most visitors to Burma at that time, stories of slave labour and repression seemed at odds with the images they encountered: smiling people, exotic festivals and gleaming temples.  Burma was a mature totalitarian state, its operations to subtle for the casual observer to perceive… The regime was so ubiquitous there was no need for troops on the streets.  The vey absence of the army was proof of its power.

How then does one capture the brutality of a military dictatorship when the army is not visible on the street?  Or record something so pervasive that it is almost imperceptible?

Dunlop did, through 20 years’ patient travel and photography.  The result is an impressive combination of photography and written journalism which, steering clear of cliches, lifts the lid on a secretive country where another reality lies beyond the sight of most observers.  Brave New Burma documents not only the country and its struggles but Dunlop’s own journey as a photographer and journalist as he seeks to uncover hidden stories about the reality of life in Burma.    
 

Dunlop tracks down those who have been forced from their homes, tortured and forced into labour before penetrating the military heart of the regime to observe the leaders up close shortly before protests by buddhist monks were brutally put down by the Tatmadaw in 2007.  

Brave New Burma is structured as a series of essays accompanied by photos, dealing in turn with Burma’s internal conflicts, the invisibility of the totalitarian regime, imprisonment, torture and forced labour and the military regime.  Brave New Burma is gripping, chilling and unflinching in its examination of the ethnic divisions and conflicts that have riven Burma and been exploited by the dictatorship, the plight of refugees and the humiliations, rapes, mutilations, psychological scars and privations inflicted on the country’s population.  

What makes Brave New Burma particularly powerful is its mixture of political and historical background interwoven with portraits and personal accounts from those he has interviewed, which make it an intimate and compassionate portrait of the country’s people.    

Brave New Burma is not just a record of a repressive regime that will hopefully soon be consigned to history books but also an excellent introduction to Burma and valuable for anyone wanting to gain an insight following last November’s historic elections. 

In the final chapter, Dunlop examines the possibility of change and potential freedom from the fear that pervades both civilian and military life.  Dunlop seems more hopeful than optimistic.  Avoiding the simplistic view of freedom versus a totalitarian regime, his view is nuanced and highlights the difficulties that will accompany real change in the country from ethnic tensions, the weight of expectation on Aung Sang Suu Kyi, to the risk of future exploitation as external forces eye economic opportunities in Burma.  It is perhaps for that reason that the last photo bears the cautious caption, ‘No end in sight’.

Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based, award winning photographer with photo agency Panos Pictures.  Panos specialises in global social issues, “recognising that photography is more than pictures on a page” and believing “in the photography of ideas…with the aim of interpreting rather than simply recording.” 

Watch Nic Dunlop introduce Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club launch in May 2013: 

Alternatively, listen to the event on Soundcloud or preview Brave New Burma on Panos Pictures’ website:

You can read some earlier articles and view some of Nic Dunlop’s photos at Prospect magazine, here, here and here

Essay: Universities’ overland challenge

There is more to a road than the mud, the stones, the concrete slabs, and the tar that constitutes its surface.  (Lionel Gregory in the RCS Commonwealth Journal, 1972).

In this article from Cambridge University’s alumni magazine, former students recall an overland journey to India in the 1960s.

Their story is that of the first Commonwealth Expedition (Comex) which involved some 200 students from Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Oxford and Cambridge universities travelling in five coaches overland from the UK to India in 1965.  Along the way, they braved unpaid bills, poor or nonexistent roads, cholera and war.  Putting on cultural performances of music, singing and plays for their host countries, the students were often unaware of the political situation in the countries they travelled through.  

On the surface, it was a bit like Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday or the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour except that it had the serious aim of helping British kids interact with Commonwealth kids. Gregory called his young fellow travellers his “army for peace”. (from The Scotsman newspaper)

Following the trail blazed by fare paying coach expeditions such as Garrow-Fisher’s Indiaman Tours and Swagman Tours and later made famous as the Hippy Trail, Comex had the loftier aim of promoting the multicultural ideals of the Commonwealth and attempting “to produce enlightened Commonwealth citizens and support multiracial understanding through international travel.”

Comex was conceived by Lionel Gregory, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Gurkha regiment of the British Army.  ‘Greg’ had been brought up in India and saw active service with the Ghurkas during the Second World War in Burma and later in Malaya.  In later life, Greg was instrumental in seeing up the Ten Tors competition which takes place annually in Dartmoor National Park.  Greg started Comex after conversations with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who happened to be a family friend.  Nehru died in 1964, but the first Comex took place the following year.  Further Comex expeditions took place over the next few years with the number of coaches growing to 20 by the third expedition.  For more on this interesting character, read Lionel Gregory’s obituary in the Scotsman here and obituary from the Royal Signals focussing on his military career, here.  Greg wrote several books about his experiences including  Crying Drums: The Story of the Commonwealth Expedition (1972), With a Song and Not a Sword. (1973), Together Unafraid (1979) and Journey of a Lifetime (1997).

In short, a brief and interesting article which gives a glimpse on a form of overland travel which is no longer possible.  Read it in Cam magazine with Issuu:

Book: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer

Published by Pan, 2011 (originally published in 1997)

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill.  The trick is to get back down alive.”

Into Thin Air began life as a magazine article.  In 1996, Krakauer, an experienced climber, was sent by Outside Magazine to write an article about the commercialism of climbing on Mount Everest.  He was to join an all expenses paid party being led by experienced New Zealand guide, Rob Hall.  As it turned out, Krakauer was fortunate to return with his life after his party got caught in a storm on the day of their summit attempt and 12 people died.  Krakauer turned in his article for Outside but, as catharsis for survivor’s guilt, Krakauer interviewed those involved in the events and gathered together more information to write a book.

Into Thin Air deals with questions of drive, ambition and vanity, the commercialisation of climbing on Everest and questions about trust and loyalty.  It raises frank questions such as what climbers can expect from those who are on the mountain with them and the way the way that being a fee-paying client can change expectations and feelings of responsibility.  

He accepts that this account cannot be complete and acknowledges the difficulties inherent in piecing together the fragments, despite his extensive research.  However, although some questions are left unanswered, being a climber, Krakauer is able to help us start to understand climbing and climbers.   Krakauer deals with the physical and psychological aspects of climbing including the effect that lack of oxygen has at high altitude.  His insights help to understand the necessary drive (“in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die”), endurance (“the ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on”) and risk-taking (“this is an activity that idealises risk-taking”).  He is honest about the selfish aspects of climbing and climbers’ complex and varied motivations:

“We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize…. We would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different.”  

Yet, despite his insights, it seems there are no firm answers here either:  “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility”.  

Dramatic and exciting, Into Thin Air reads like a blockbuster movie (unsurprisingly the events have been filmed twice).  Krakauer’s writing gives the events an immediacy and proximity.  There are moments in the book that made by palms clammy and that were genuinely emotional.  However, as Justine Burley’s review in the London Review of Books (£) noted, Into Thin Air is “admirably written” and  “free of mawkishness, blame or a prurient interest in death”.

Into Thin Air belongs with Herzog’s Annapurna or Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void in the climbing canon.  There are less sensational books about Everest and climbing available (Jan Morris’ Coronation Everest, numerous books by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, Feeding the Rat by Al Alvarez, Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life) but if you are in the mood for an adrenalin-filled adventure tale you could do a lot worse.  No wonder it makes the top 10 in National Geographic’s 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time alongside books such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World and Shackleton’s South and also features in World Hum’s 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time (although apparently on the strength of its high sales).

Have things on Everest changed since the 1996 tragedy?  The commercialisation of climbing on Everest has continued, people continue to die and rubbish continues to pile up (see this 2015 BBC article). As Krakauer noted:

To believe that dissecting the tragic events of 1996 in minute detail will actually reduce the future death rate in any meaningful way is wishful thinking. The urge to catalogue the myriad blunders in order to “learn from the mistakes” is for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception.

Indeed, Michio Kakutani, in his review for the New York Times, written in the year following the tragedy,  noted:

Oddly enough, none of this appears to have dampened amateur interest in scaling Everest. In recent months, The New York Times has reported, demand for the 200 available spaces in the base camp has risen sharply, thanks in part to all the talk about the casualties claimed by the Big E last year.

Further reading can be found in Caroline Fraser’s review in the New York Review of Books (£) and Alastair Scott’s review for the New York Times in which he describes Into Thin Air as “a step-by-step account of how a diverse group of people try to conquer a mountain whose majesty is utterly dwarfed by the hardship required to ascend it.”  Not directly based on Krakauer’s book, the 1996 disaster on Everest have been made into a Hollywood film: 

https://vimeo.com/138192829

Krakauer himself is no fan of the film and in a recent interview with the LA Times declared:

“Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done…When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”  

Book: 80 days around the world with Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin 

Published by W&N (2009) (originally published in 1989 by BBC)

The compulsive urge to travel is a recognised psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I’m glad to say I suffer from it. The ambition of every dromomaniac is a circumnavigation of the planet.

It is more then 25 years since Monty Python member, Michael Palin, left on his round the world journey for the BBC in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s fictional traveller, Phileas Fogg.    

That journey around the world was, in his own words, the one that “started the ball rolling” and, in those 25 years, Palin has embarked on a second career as TV travel presenter and has completed a further seven journeys, from Pole to Pole, across the Sahara, to the Himlayas, around Eastern Europe, in pursuit of Hemingway and lastly to Brazil.   All have been filmed and broadcast by the BBC and have accompanying books (as well as audiobooks, narrated by Palin).  So successful was Palin’s second career as traveller and adventurer that it culminated in him being president of the Royal Geographical Society between 2009 and 2012.

Palin was not the BBC’s first choice as presenter for the journey; three others turned the role down before it was offered to him.  One of those was Alan Whicker, presenter of Whicker’s World, a TV magazine program reporting from the round the world that ran on British television for 30 years.  In an interview with Palin and his co-producer, Roger Mills, to mark the anniversary of Palin’s 80 day journey and to promote the third volume of Palin’s diaries which cover most of his travelling period, Mills recalls how the production team did their best to put Whicker off accepting the job.  Apparently Whicker later called the programme “a seven-hour ego trip” (read more here).  The series was a success though and the BBC screened seven instead of the six originally planned episodes and the final programme was viewed by 12 million.     

The 80 day journey tried to stick as closely to Fogg’s route as possible.   Travel by plane was not allowed.   In an age where travel is widespread and the world is only a click away courtesy of Youtube or Vimeo, it would be easy to question the value of such a journey.  Palin himself admits his journey never allowed time to  “dig very deep” and in his introduction acknowledged that “those expecting profound international insights will be disappointed.” In an interview for A&E in the US promoting the TV series and aired after the first episode, Palin was asked what he now felt about air travel and replied:

its highly functional and a bit aseptic it’s rather like being in a nice piece of cling wrap; you soar over the world and the aircraft cabin you’re in is exactly like the lounge you get out into like the hotel you go to, there are no smells sounds you don’t really touch and feel the world much, I mean, if I have to go from A to B very quickly yes fine suits me, but the experience of going across the Atlantic by ship was so utterly different to going across the Atlantic by plane and it gives you time, time to think about the culture you’ve just left and time to sort of prepare yourself for he next one.

The point was simply the opportunity to make a journey like this overland and experience the scale of the world and the relation of countries and cultures to one another.  To see, hear, smell and touch it:

Travel when the hands get dirty, when contact is made, brought home to me how much we all see of the world on television and in the newspapers, and how little we know of it. Journeys like this can only be good for us. (from the Afterword)

This is where Around the World in 80 Days is best.  Not in the set pieces or the traditional sights but in the people Palin meets and speaks to: the rubbish collectors in Venice, the crew on the many ships he travels on (and particularly the dhow) or the street barber in Bombay.   The contrasts of elation and frustration and of hurrying to meet connections and waiting; those “still pools at the side of the stream, where for a while, nothing at all moves.”  And the fact that despite the BBC’s best efforts, things don’t always go to plan and although making his journey at the end of the 20th century, Palin struggles to ‘keep pace’ with Fogg’s fictional 19th century journey.  

These things, and Palin’s natural approach, make this journey both personal and satisfying as we experience the generosity he encounters as he circles the globe and the sadness he feels at constantly leaving places people and people he has known only for a short time. Ironically though, given the scale of his journey, nowhere is the vastness of the world and our place in it made as clear as up Palin’s anticlimatic and frustrating return to an indifferent London. 

Photographs, videos, interactive maps of Palin’s route and the entire text of the book are online at www.palinstravels.co.uk together with materials relating to his other journeys. 

See Kathy Lette interview Michael Palin for the BBC’s Behind the Headlines in 1990 (the sound and video are a little out of synch but it is a quite funny contemporary interview):

For more on Palin’s role as President of the Royal Geographical Society, see this article from 2009 in the Independent newspaper.

Download and read Jules Verne’s original story for free from Amazon for Kindle or in other ebook formats for free from Gutenburg here.

Book: Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities

Fleming Thrilling CitiesThrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Vintage (with an introduction by Jan Morris)

“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.”  Ian Fleming

After the Second World War, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond and brother of travel writer Peter Fleming), joined the Sunday Times newspaper as Foreign Manager.  He was responsible for sending correspondents around the world and seeing that they delivered “intelligent stuff”.

In 1959, it was his turn and Fleming was urged by his editorial board to “do something exciting and write about it.”  He did and so made two journeys around thirteen “thrilling cities of the world.”  The resulting essays, which Fleming referred to as ‘mood pieces’, were serialised in the Sunday Times in 1959/60 and then published as Thrilling Cities in 1962.

The book follows the two journeys.  The first half recounts a 30 day round the world air trip in 1959 taking in eight ‘exotic’ cities. The second, a six week, six city and 6000 mile trip around Europe in a seven litre Thunderbird made in the spring of the following year (1960).

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming was asked by presenter Roy Plomley whether there was much of him in James Bond.  Fleming laughed and replied:

I hope not…people do connect me with James Bond simply because I happen to like scrambled eggs and short sleeved shirts and some of the things that James Bond does but, err, I certainly haven’t got his guts nor his, err, very lively appetites.

That may be but, as the title suggests, what Fleming records are not the ‘tourist sights’. Instead, he uses his “tin-opener” to “find out what goes on behind the facade” of his stop-offs and reveals the exotic, shady and, at times, seedy background of his James Bond thrillers.

Whether describing Hamburg’s nightlife or Berlin’s transvestites, having tea with Lucky Luciano in Naples, spending time with fortune tellers and geishas, dining with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, meeting Hollywood producers or crime reporters in Chicago, Fleming is always in his element and moves effortlessly between respectability (and his Establishment friends and contacts) and the more unusual side of his destinations.

Some encounters, like that in Macao with Dr Lobo, a multi million pound gold dealer, and his “powerfully built butler, who looked more like a judo black-belt than a butler” could almost have come straight from the pages of his novels.

Fleming is equally at ease with a champagne and jet-set lifestyle and provides interesting glimpses of what travel used to be like – smoking on aircraft, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics handed out to passengers, refuelling in ‘the’ Lebanon and flying your car across the Channel rather than using a ferry.  They convey the excitement and glamour of travel at the start of the jet age and also Fleming’s enthusiasm for travel and delight at “hammering out the miles” driving across Europe in the post war period.

On his way, Fleming makes absorbing observations about travel and tourists.  He complains in Honolulu about the “high-pressure tourist atmosphere and the uniformity of the tourist and retire population.”  He prefers his hotels “unsullied by the tourist smear” and accuses tourists who pay to hear the Vienna boys choir of only “collecting the occasion, like a postage stamp.”  In Italy, he avoids Venice, refuses guides and guidebooks at Pompeii and makes wry comments about the country and its people.  In a post-imperialist lament, he notes the decline of British cultural and commercial influence around the world and exhorts younger people to show more interest in the ‘Orient’ and to travel more.

Bond is never far off, whether in the Las Vegas gambling tips courtesy of Fleming’s ‘connected’ contact, the advice on how to drink sake or in the casino at Monte Carlo.  At times it feels as though Fleming is playing to the gallery but perhaps there is more of him in Bond than he admits.  (A distinct possibility for a man whose idea of a literary gaffe is making reference in his novels to half bottles of Pol Roger champagne, when Pol Roger does not in fact produce half bottles.)

Fleming modestly claimed that he was not in the “Shakespeare stakes” and had no ambitions to more serious writing.  However, he was obviously well travelled and had an eye for the interesting and unusual combined with a lust for life and foreign travel.  As a result, Thrilling Cities is never boring but is an enjoyable whistle stop world tour seen through the eyes of James Bond’s creator just before that world was presented to cinema audiences in the first of the Bond films.

It is worth pointing out that Thrilling Cities was not Fleming’s only contribution to the travel writing genre.  In the late 50s while still Foreign Manager at the ST, he sent Norman Lewis to Cuba to report on Castro’s chances against the Batista regime. While there, Lewis interviewed a Dubonnet-soaked Hemingway, an episode recounted by Lewis in The World, The World.  But that, as they say, is another story.

Book: Kapuscinksi’s Travels with Herodotus

Kapuscinski - Travels with HerodotusTravels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Penguin Books

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the most celebrated and controversial journalists and authors of the second half of the last century.   Famous for his books on Ethiopia, Iran and Russia, it seems impossible to give an account of his long career without repeating that he had witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. 

Kapuscinski died in 2007 and Travels with Herodotus was his final book.  In Travels, we encounter Kapuscinski in Cold War Poland as a young journalist for whom the outside world was a fairy-tale.  Before his first foreign assignment to India, the young Kapuscinski is given a copy of The Histories by his editor.    

So begins a journey following Kapuscinski’s own travels as he reports from around the globe intertwined with his own pursuit of Herodotus through the pages of The Histories.  For KapuscinskiHerodotus becomes part companion and part patron saint of foreign correspondents through whom Kapuscinski articulates/formulates his own theory of reportage by celebrating Herodotus’ spirit of inquiry.

Giving the keynote speech at the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2003, Kapuscinski hailed Herodotus as “my first reporter, our father and master, the forerunner of a genre” and The Histories as an “exemplary specimen of reportage” in which the three sources of reportage could be found: travel, people and the reporter’s homework (“reading what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions, or graphic symbols”).

This last source is important for Kapuscinski as it “shows us how to be investigative and precise”.  Kapuscinski notes that Herodotus was well-read and that “he also deciphered inscriptions and symbols on temples and town walls.  Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or a new meaning”

Returning from his first foreign assignment to India, Kapuscinski recalls that he “returned from this journey, embarrassed at how ill-read [he] was” and through this “failure” set about reading voraciously about the places he was to visit realising that he needed to prepare “thoroughly and at length for such an encounter”:

With each new title I read, I felt as if I were undertaking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew.  These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one.  I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs.  What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image etc, something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.”

In his preparation and reading Kapuscinski was able to experience a more layered and multidimensional journey and so reveals an attraction of reading travel literature – to supplement the physical journey and to provide the mental tools to unlock meanings and messages where mere observation may not succeed.

This thorough preparation may also have fuelled Kapuscinski’s “literary reportage” for which his books have fuelled controversy.  

Kapuscisnki made no secret of the fact that he found the language of conventional journalism  to be inadequate “when confronting the rich, varied, colourful, ineffable reality of [third world] cultures, customs and beliefs.”  

In an interview with Bill Buford for Granta in 1987, Kapuscinski explained that “It’s not that the story is not getting expressed: It’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”

To avoid areas of reality being rendered “beyond the sphere of description”, Kapuscinski unapologetically “blurred genres”, taking as his cue Capote, Mailer and  Garcia Marquez, whose work he noted “straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle”.   The result, “is the creative result of a combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing”.  

Kapuscinski has been criticised for his lack of accuracy.  For some, his writing was “tinged with magical realism”, while for others he was just making things up.  

This was not just carelessness.  Kapuscinski kept two note books (whether metaphorically or literally); one for his journalism and the other for his literary reportage and he was amused by critical complaints of his work: 

Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events.  All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid.  If those are the questions that you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need:  the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.”

Although writing where “descriptions of real events, true stories and accidents are supplemented with the writer’s personal opinions and reactions, and often with fictional asides to add colour; with the techniques and manners of fiction” may not be regarded as “straight journalism”, it can make great travel writing.  

Paradoxically, however, despite praising Herodutus’ inquiring style and precision in Travels, the book’s central conceit may just be a literary device rather than biographical fact.  It has been noted that one will search in vain for references to Herodotus elsewhere in Kapuscinski’s work, which could be considered odd if Herodotus had been Kapuscinski’s life long companion and mentor (Bissell).   

Sara Wheeler’s review of Travels with Herodotus for the Guardian is here.  Tom Bissell’s New York Times review is here, while Tahir Shah’s review for the Washington Post is here, and Jason Burke’s for the Literary Review is here.

For an in-depth discussion of Kapuscinski’s work and where reportage ends and literature begins featuring Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslawski, at a Frontline Club event, see here:

Book: “Exterminate all the brutes”

Lindqvist Saharan JourneyExterminate all the Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist

Published by Granta as Saharan Journey (with Desert Divers)

“You already know enough.  So do I.  It is not knowledge we lack.  What is missing is he courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

In his preface, Swedish born journalist, Sven Lindqvist, sums up Exterminate All the Brutes, by stating:

“This is a story, not a contribution to historical research. It is the story of a man traveling by bus through the Saharan desert and, at the same time, traveling by computer through the history of the concept of extermination.  In small, sand-ridden desert hotels, his study closes in one sentence in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate all the brutes.””

In his 2005 Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote speechLindqvist says that his career in reportage started “with a little yellow-paged book that belonged to my Grandmother” which, when he was a boy, he saved from one of his mother’s periodic clear outs.  The book was a diary by Swedish missionary Edward Sjöblom who travelled to the Belgian Congo in 1892 and travelled by boat up the Congo searching for a suitable spot to found a mission.  

The graphic and horrific descriptions in Sjöblom’s diary of the treatment meted out to locals by colonists had a profound effect on Lindqvist (the diary “with all its imperfections, was much more powerful than anything I had read before, because it was about real people and real events”).  Lindqvist wanted to become like Sjöblom:  “[n]ot a missionary, maybe, but one who travelled the world and experienced it.  I wanted to be an eyewitness to the cruelties and injustices and report on them. Like Sjöblom, I wanted to sound the alarm and appeal to world opinion.”

Lindqvist expands this story in Exterminate All the Brutes.  The book’s central idea is that we forget uncomfortable truths: “the Germans have been made sole scapegoats of extermination that are actually a common European heritage” the reason being that “[w]e do not want to remember.  We want genocide to have begun and ended with nazism. That is what is most comforting.” 

In a Guardian profile on Lindqvist, Stuart Jeffries writes that Exterminate All the Brutes “is extraordinary for not being straightforward historical text but travel diary. [Lindqvist] wrote it while crossing the Sahara on buses and, at the same time, journeying through the history of extermination.”

Lindqvist sets out to the “desert of deserts” in Africa “carrying under one arm the core of European thought stored on an old fashioned computer”.  In what Richard Gott called “an ingeniously researched exploration of the roots of European racism and genocide, skilfully presented as a travel book though time and space”, Lindqvist disappears into this desert in an attempt to create the time and distance he needs to explore and understand the material he has collected but never has the time to go through to and which Lindqvist asserts “simply tells the truth we prefer to forget.”  

As Richard Gott says, Lindqvist is “not really a “travel writer” in the usual sense, but he uses the experience gained in unfamiliar locations to entice the reader into consideration of problems that are often a good deal nearer home.” (Gott and Lindqvist originally met in Bolivia in 1967 on the trail of Che Guevara’s guerrilla campaign and have been friends since.)

Lindqvist’s is burdened on his journey by the physical weight of his pack and laptop which could easily be a metaphor for the wright of the knowledge he is carrying in it.  Fear overshadows his journey:

Why do I travel so much when I am so terribly frightened of traveling?  Perhaps in fear we seek an increased perception of life, a more potent form of existence?  I am frightened, therefore I exist.  The more frightened I am, the more I exist.”

At times, this is the normal fear of a traveler setting out on a journey, a sensation soon to be replaced by elation (I am frightened as usual.  But when departure finally cannot be postponed any longer, as I stand there at dawn with my heavy pack, crouching before the leap – then I am again elated at being where I am”) or it is the fear of a physical danger – being buried in the sand (“Everything is covered with sand, my sleeping bag, my notebook, my suitcase, even my body.  My eyelids are lie sandpaper against my eyeballs.  The air is too thick to breathe”) or suffering from the heat. 

These fears, however, could just as easily be fear of teetering on the edge of the conclusions he will draw from his understanding of the material he carries, knowing that he cannot then un-know them.  Or they could be the claustrophobia he experiences from immersing himself so completely in the material or a fear of being buried under the sheer weight of the many textual references.  

The travelogue makes up a small proportion of the overall text, but the fragments shine through his description of the history of extermination.  And, although his prose is as sparse as the desert he describes it is no less evocative for it (“You long for trees in the desert, not just for the shade they provide, but also because they stretch up toward space”).

Making his own journey into darkness, after Conrad, Lindqvist traces a line across the blank of the heart of the Sahara.  His journey begins in El Golea (almost in the geographical centre of Algeria) and follows an overland route through the desert to the town of Zinder in southern Niger, close to the Nigerian border.   Although he does not visit obvious places associated with his subject such as Congo or Sudan, his ultimate goal becomes clear, neatly tying together both journeys with a firing parallel which I won’t spoil. 

Lindqvist acknowledged in his Lettre Ulysses lecture, that not everyone agrees with his conclusions, not least the Belgians (“The power of truth is such that it will always produce denial”).   However, there is no denying that Lindqvist tells a compelling story in an imaginative manner.

At the time of writing, Exterminate All the Brutes is published by Granta in Saharan Journey alongside Lindqvist’s other desert travelogue, Desert Divers.