William Dalrymple on ‘The Last Literary Traveller’

Literary travel writing, usually associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, seems at the moment to be echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall. Within the last few years Ryszard Kapuscinski, Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger have followed Bruce Chatwin on their last journey. Others – notably Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor – have put down their pens or busied themselves with a final bout of anthologising.

At the same time, many of the most talented of the younger generation have turned their pens in new directions: Philip Marsden and Amitav Ghosh to the novel; Nick Crane and Sara Wheeler to biography; Anthony Sattin and Katie Hickman to social history. There are few new stars coming up to replace the old guard: of those who have written debut travel books within the last decade only Suketu Mehta, Rory Stewart, William Fiennes and Jason Elliott can really be said to be of comparable quality to the departing masters.

British travel writing is now as commercially successful as it has ever been, but the books that are selling are not literary, so much as frivolous mass-market ‘funnies’- comedians pulling fridges through Estonia and so on. Travel writing is still popular, then, but it is no longer the powerful literary force it once was. Even some travel writers themselves have doubted the status of the travel book as a serious work of literature. Paul Theroux whose ‘Great Railway Bazaar’ (1975) helped kick-start the travel writing boom of the 1980’s, selling over 1.5 million copies in 20 languages, was one of the first to express his dislike of the publishing leviathan he had helped create: ‘Fiction is the only thing that interests me now,’ he told one interviewer. ‘The travel book as autobiography, as the new form of the novel — it’s all bullshit. When people say that now I just laugh.’

All of which makes Rory MacLean an especially important figure. For MacLean is possibly the only major travel writer of his generation who is still exclusively, and self-consciously, a literary writer about travel. He is also, of course, one of the best around. From the opening pages of his 1992 debut, Stalin’s Nose, with its pig falling from a tree and breaking his uncle’s neck, it was clear that here was a deeply unusual new talent: one who, driven by his passionate love of travel, was serious about his journeys and who was also a fine writer – engaging in his interests, observant, sensitive, an amiable and interesting companion; but he was also unpredictable and experimental, brazenly mixing fact and fiction, the darkly humorous and the grimly serious, the real and the surreal, and all with an irrepressible, mischievous glee. As Colin Thubron writes in his introduction to the new edition, ‘MacLean’s first book crashed through the norms of the genre to create a surreal masterpiece. And for this burlesque tour de force the author travelled a region not of comfort but of bizarre human tragedy, as if reminding the reader that laughter arises less from happiness than from the detonations of the unexpected’.

MacLean is one of the contemporary travel writers who have done most to explore the boundaries and demonstrate the continuing possibilities of the genre in an age of globalisation and mass travel. Jonathan Raban once wrote: “Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they miss the brute differences in everything of importance.” This is something MacLean has always known. Like Robert Byron, Redmond O’Hanlon and Colin Thubron, he has shown that the travel book is potentially a vessel into which a wonderfully varied and unexpected cocktail of ingredients can be poured: history, philosophy, archaeology, ornithology, art, magic. In the right hands, an extraordinary range of human enthusiasms and experiences can be explored within the frame of the literary travel narrative.

MacLean has also shown the degree to which the genre can be cross fertilised with other literary forms: political black comedy in Stalin’s Nose, diaspora history in The Oatmeal Ark, biography in Falling for Icarus, exuberant pop writing in Magic Bus. Perhaps more interesting still he, like Chatwin and Kapuscinski before him, have muddied the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction by crossing the travel book with some of the wilder forms of the novel. Like them, his work is oddly unclassifiable, dwelling in a half-lit area between fact and fiction that Chatwin made uniquely his own. Like them, he uses the techniques of the novel – developing characters, selecting and tailoring his experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arranging the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum- yet what was being written about is fundamentally true, and the characters, unlike those in most novels, are closely modelled on living originals, even when their identities have been changed or obscured for their own protection.

Yet while MacLean’s work is in many ways firmly within the canon of British travel writing, he – a Canadian from Vancouver and Toronto – is personally a very un-English figure, something that is immediately apparent from his writing. If the clean purity of the prose of Bruce Chatwin or Colin Thubron’s derives in part from their personas as cool Anglo-Saxon observers, pinning their characters to the page with the detachment of Victorian insect collectors, MacLean’s virtues are very different. For all the surreal touches, MacLean is passionately partisan and always wears his heart – and his strong moral sense – on his sleeve. Consistently in his writing, he gets emotionally involved with his subject matter, and shows far more empathy and compassion with those he encounters than most travel writers writing in the English tradition.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Under the Dragon, a work of great political commitment, powered above all by the authors’ outrage at the injustices, brutalisation and mass violation of human rights that he witnessed in Burma. In his exploration of the almost Dickensian downward trajectory of Ni Ni into child prostitution, or the arrest, imprisonment, breakdown and heartbreak of Ma Swe, MacLean is more witness for the prosecution of the Generals of SLORC than the impassive and neutral observer. He is aware of the beauty of Burma and its people, but the warmth of Burmese hospitality and the seduction of a Burmese smile never leads him to romanticise what he sees: this is above all a tale of the enslavement of a people, of forced labour, oppression, exile, gang rapes, prostitution, censorship and bloody massacres.

But for all its pain, Under the Dragon is a beautiful book. MacLean has a remarkable ability to evoke place, and to bring to life a whole world in a single unexpected image. The visual precision of the writing, combined with its wit and pitch-perfect dialogue, its intriguingly fictionalised human stories, its hatred of injustice, and its fierce passion for its subject, has given the work as much emotional punch as any non-fiction book by a writer of MacLean’s generation. For many of us, it remains his masterpiece; and in the light of the continuing tragedy in Burma is now more relevant than ever.

‘The Last Literary Traveller’ by William Dalrymple was published in Prospect, July 2008.