Joanna Kavenna on ‘Pictures of You’

We might sympathize with the earliest travellers, as they returned from a once distant place, ranting about monsters, frozen oceans, or fiery mountains. Lacking tangible proof, they were at times accused – like Pytheas, who circumnavigated Britain in the fourth century BC – of being liars and charlatans. The history of exploration is fraught with uncertainty: the alleged first man to arrive at the North Pole, Frederick Cook, was (arguably) deposed and Robert Peary became the first man instead – only to be (arguably) deposed in turn. A further problem is that travel is a wholly subjective enterprise, and even if you and I stand before the same fiery mountain or frozen ocean we may exalt them in different ways. Writers such as Thomas More, Jonathan Swift and William Morris, among others, perceived the creative possibilities of a disreputable genre, using mock travelogues to advance satirical or utopian propositions. Thus an ironic counter-tradition emerged, of travel writing that makes no claim to be factual at all.

The philosophical travel writer Rory MacLean might well be placed in this counter-tradition. In robustly original works including Stalin’s Nose (1992), Falling for Icarus (2004) and Berlin: Imagine a City (2014), he joyfully elides the boundaries between fact and fiction; moreover, the notion that one might sustain such boundaries is dismissed as the most improbable fantasy of all. MacLean’s latest book, Pictures of You, conveys a fundamental provocation: “In fiction one is bound to tell the truth, whereas in travel writing one can make things up”. In an opening sequence, MacLean (or his narratorial persona) finds himself in west London, by a wrought iron gate. Inside a “squat and plain building”, he discovers “thousands of numbered manila folders, stacked at wild angles like something the earth had thrust up, a geological slice of civilisation”. He has arrived, it seems, at the Archive of Modern Conflict – a collection of 4 million “amateur snapshots, press prints, throwaways and daguerreotypes”, “snatched from defunct Soviet institutions and bankrupt British publications, bought on eBay and at small-town auction houses”. It is “one of the world’s most moving image treasures” and yet, also, a virtually unknown place.

MacLean selects a photograph or group of photographs from each decade of the twentieth century – “those images that most touched me, that aroused my curiosity, that made me laugh or sigh”. Though “hard facts” are lacking, he seeks to unfurl “the subject’s possible true story” and to open an “animated dialogue between past and present”. In 1990s China, he considers the life of “a plain girl, one of the nameless ranks, perfectly ordinary, quiet and forgettable”. This account is punctuated with elusive pictures of a young woman standing in a garden, or walking with friends along a street. Turning to 1980s Cameroon, MacLean imagines a “dutiful man of enormous earnestness”, who went to work every day and “hung his jacket on the office coat rack, arranged his papers with care, breakfasted on deep fried puff puffs and black coffee, then lost himself in his job”. Using a series of pictures of “game felled”, MacLean presents the oddly heedless thoughts of a French hunter during the years 1911–18. From a Second World War photograph of a burning aeroplane, he evokes the pilot’s final moments and his fantasies of escape. This is horrible and deeply moving. Later, in a dreamlike anecdote, MacLean travels to Rangoon, in search of Burma’s oldest photographer – and finds a dying man, rambling through his fading memories.

Gradually, “things . . . get a little out of hand” and the MacLean-narrator-persona becomes perplexed: “Did I pay the niece a hundred dollars for the photographs, or a thousand?”, he asks. “Did I leave the studio with them to fly back to London, or wake up with them on my lap on a sofa bed in Holland Park? I cannot say for sure.” Transfixed by the archive and its millions of long-gone mortals, he adds photographs from his own life and his father’s military service in two world wars:

“I couldn’t stop myself. All my life in pictures, and all the lives of other people who had crossed my path, seemed to flow onto the shelves as if in a conscious desire to find a timeless, everlasting now . . . . I began to wonder if I had somehow ceased to exist . . . . ”

Is this remotely real? How would we even know? For MacLean, the photographs are “places of the possible and the impossible, shaped by fact and fancy”. Their mortal subjects were once here in the world, as children and then as expectant youths, drifting into midlife reveries, contending with vicissitudes. Now we stand, briefly, in what was once their future. Pictures of You is a richly imaginative account of ordinary lives – and an eerily beautiful meditation on mortality.

Times Literary Supplement 5 May 2017

‘Pictures of You: Ten Journeys in Time’ is published by Bone Idle.