Imaginary homelands essa.., p.22

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 22


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  Contemporary literary travellers tend, it being an antiheroic age, to be more Huck than Chuck. Their true ancestors are not, perhaps, so much the wandering heroes of the classical epoch (Jason, Ulysses, unspeakably pious Aeneas) as the picaros of the novel. Many of the most appealing pieces of twentieth-century ‘travel writing’ read very like picaresque novels, offering us the notion of adventure-as-mad-quest. Even Italo Calvino’s fictional Marco Polo, in Invisible Cities, has a whole series of such quests in mind: he travels through his wondrous cities in search of his past, his future, Venice, memory, and stranger things: ‘This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed. I gauge its short supply.’ Such conceits, exquisite and comic, suggest parodies of the ancient myth of the Holy Grail.

  To invoke the Grail is to realize that adventure, as it is understood today, has lost a certain high-minded grandeur, and that the loss lies in the area of purpose. Once upon a time the journey, the quest, the adventure was not so much a private, or idiosyncratic, or crazy enterprise as a spiritual labour. The Knights of the Round Table sought the Sangreal in God’s name. The Pilgrim’s Progress, like its Islamic counterpart, Farid-ud-din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, is an adventure of purification, of winning through to the divine. The voyages of Sindbad the Sailor have been explicated in religio-mystical terms. Like the line of sight in a Gothic cathedral, the adventuring spirit was swept forwards and upwards in the direction of God. This allegorical, transcendent adventuring is, these days, more or less completely defunct.

  There are good reasons for feeling relieved that adventure is nowadays the province of the determined, the curious and the idiosyncratic. The adventuring spirit, when ruled by faith or ideology, has not been an entirely Good Thing. The behaviour of the Crusader knights, Spanish conquistadors and the like bears witness to this. Like all important ideas, adventure has a dark side as well as a light. For every Christopher Columbus there is also a Captain Hook, for every lamp-genie there is a fiend. The world of the adventurer contains at least as many mercenary ‘soldiers of fortune’ as idealistic knights-errant, and for every Vasco da Gama there is also an Aguirre, Wrath of God. When the spirit of adventure invades the historical process—when States or their leaders or representatives go adventuring—the results are usually catastrophic. From Genghis Khan to Napoleon and Mussolini, history is littered with examples of what happens when adventurers come to power: disaster, rapine, fire and the sword, Bad Things galore. Adventure and politics are best kept far apart, rather like uranium and plutonium.

  On the whole, then, the Candide/Quixote model of adventure seems preferable to older versions. In our increasingly vicarious culture, the adventurers are the people who perform marvels on our behalf. Escaping from their own roots, from the prison of everyday reality, they enable us to experience, if at one remove, something of the exhilaration of the successful jailbreaker. If urban society be a confining chain, then the adventurers are our necessary Houdinis, reminding us that change, difference, strangeness, newness, risk and achievement really do still exist, and can, if we wish, be attained.

  This kind of adventuring has become, or so it seems to me, a pretty well exclusively Western phenomenon. Once there was an Ibn Battuta to set against Marco Polo, and even an Islamic empire to liken to the Christian ones. But it’s hard to conceive of, say, an Indian Paul Theroux becoming obsessed with the railways of the United States, or a black African Karen Blixen heading for Scandinavia. I offer the theory that adventuring is, these days, by and large a movement that originates in the rich parts of the planet and heads for the poor. Or a journey from the crowded cities towards the empty spaces, which may be another way of saying the same thing. I recently watched a television documentary in which a group of British adolescents on Honda motor-trikes roared across the perfection of the Saharan sand-dunes, boasting that the crossing of the Erg had never been done before ‘on motorized transport’. I was left with the memory of the bemused courteous faces of the locals they encountered, many of whom had very probably crossed that desert on admittedly non-motorized camels; and I fretted about the ethnocentric narrowness of vision of some who venture forth into the exotic South. To a Saharan nomad, after all, the journey is the point, the shaping fact of existence; arriving at some notional destination—‘conquering the desert’—is a kind of fiction, the illusion of an end. Adventures tend to be linear narratives, but in life, as in literature, that’s not the only way of seeing things.

  As all writers know, you don’t have to leave home to embark on an adventure. The poet Basho, in Edward Bond’s play Narrow Road to the Deep North, returns from his dangerous northward pilgrimage in search of enlightenment, claiming to have found what he sought. And what was enlightenment? ‘I saw there was nothing to learn in the deep north … You get enlightenment where you are.’ Many of the greatest adventurers of our age, Marie Curie, Freud, Marx, Einstein, Proust, Kafka, Emily Dickinson and the rest, didn’t travel much further than a laboratory, a library, a consulting room. Adventure may have much to do with the pushing back of frontiers, but few topographical boundaries can rival the frontiers of the mind.

  Even in the case of travel-adventures, the best of all are those in which some inner journey, some adventure in the self, is the real point. Peter Pan would not be the same if Wendy and the Lost Boys didn’t discover that they wanted to grow up, that Paradise has to be lost. The real plot of Moby Dick takes place inside Ahab; the rest is a fishing trip. And even Quixote, maddest of picaros, sees himself ridiculous at last: ‘For there are no birds this year in last year’s nests. I was mad, but I am sane now.’

  So it turns out that Basho is both right and wrong; that the travelling adventurer can, after all, gain knowledge that is not available elsewhere, and then, by living to tell the tale, offer that knowledge to us. Enlightenment is certainly to be had at home, but it’s still worth making the long, arduous trip, in spite of the storms and brigands, into the remote fastnesses of the deep north.



  The first time I went to an international literary festival, I was bullied into playing centre-forward for the World against Finland (our host nation) in a football match that began at midnight by the light of the midnight sun—that is, in semi-darkness. The Finnish writers took the game very seriously, rehearsing wall passes and bicycle kicks, and warning us casually that their goalkeeper was also the country’s harshest literary critic, so it might not be wholly advisable to make him cross. Meanwhile, the World, whose representatives did not have so much as a language in common, concentrated on trying to spot the ball through what Flann O’Brien would have called the accretions of black air. My own troubles were increased by my complete lack of footballing talent, by my decision not to wear my glasses in case they broke, and by D. M. Thomas, who convinced a gullible reporter that I had once won an Olympic medal at football for India. The final score—no thanks to the World’s Olympic Star—was Finland 1, the World 6, and the Finns never really forgave us. Such international encounters can be risky.

  At literary festivals you can hear J. P. Donleavy lamenting the present shortage of women who can both cook and sew. You can be instructed by Ted Hughes in the use of vitamins. Scandinavian novelists will read translations of novels about father-daughter incest, or science-fiction tales in which eight Swedes are marooned in a space station for fifty years. At literary festivals there will be drink, and a rare opportunity for writers to feel important. There will be interminable speeches by the Russian delegate about how Art is much to do with the passions, and is not rationalistic or objectivist in process. An earnest Yugoslav woman will demand the floor and inform her colleagues that they are all the victims of Positivism, after which there will be a low, polyglot buzz of writers’ voices, asking in Dutch and Arabic and Gikuyu if anyone knows what this Positivism is. At literary festivals it is important not to be lured into sitting down to poker with Al Alvarez, unless you play approximately as well as Steve
McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid.

  What is valuable for audiences—for readers—about these rather strange events is that for some reason they find it interesting to look at and listen to authors as well as read their books. What is most valuable to the writers is, I think, the informal talk, the off-stage stuff. Writers know they will probably not meet each other very often and so, when they do, they tend to come directly to the point, and, usually, to talk a great deal. This aspect of literary gatherings is reminiscent of what I was told on my first night at university by the Provost of my college. ‘The most valuable part of your education,’ he said in an after-dinner speech to us freshmen, ‘will be what you do when you sit privately in each other’s rooms at night, fertilizing one another.’

  This year, seeking fertilization, I travelled ten thousand miles to the Adelaide Festival’s Writers’ Week. I arrived knowing very little about Adelaide: capital of South Australia, close to the Barossa Valley where German migrants established many excellent vineyards, site of one of the most attractive cricket grounds on earth. Not much else, except that both David Hare, whose play A Map of the World was premiered at an earlier Adelaide Festival, and the actor Roshan Seth who played the lead in it, had spoken very highly of the place. Within hours of arriving, however, I was offered a memorable summary of the city by one of my hosts. ‘It’s called the City of Churches, Adelaide,’ he said. ‘But one of the churches is now a discothèque, and what’s more it’s the first disco in Australia to show porno films.’

  It was a useful clue, a hint that there was more to Adelaide than met the eye. What met the eye was conservative, spacious, pretty and a little bland. Adelaide was designed from scratch by South Australia’s first Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light, in 1836. ‘Light’s Vision’ was of a grid set in a garden, and that’s the way the city still looks. But for all its parkland and wide avenues it retains an air of being somehow unrooted, or unexplained, which is perhaps common to all planned cities. It is attractive enough, with its greenery and its ‘Adelaide lace’ filigree wrought-iron ornamentation on many porches and balconies, but it tells you nothing. The city’s shape does not contain the history or unveil the nature of its people. It is a kind of disguise.

  At times during my stay I would be afflicted by odd feelings of disorientation. I felt as though something were blurring my vision, or preventing me from focusing my eyes properly. No doubt jet lag and flu had something to do with this. But it wasn’t just that: I kept thinking I was somewhere in North America. It was an illusion created by the furniture of the streets—the neon, the poster art, the traffic lights all derive from American, not European models. And then Adelaide is a new city, a city without much of a past, nothing in it more than 150 years old, and that’s certainly American. And it also has to do with a choice made by white Australians. They may make anti-American jokes all the time, but they have chosen to turn their faces towards the New World and away from the old. There is something unreal, something grafted about Adelaide. It is America driving on the left. But—as that image indicates—there is still a great deal of British and European influence around. No wonder, then, that visitors occasionally suffer from double vision.

  Adelaide was an enigma, and I was getting interested in breaking its codes. Meanwhile, though, Writers’ Week was proceeding fertilely enough. The distinguished South African novelist André Brink arrived, having been obliged to sit throughout his flight from Africa next to an Australian farmer who had assured him he would enjoy Australia, ‘because we’ve got our blacks well under control, you follow me, sport?’ However, Brink’s meeting with the exiled black South African writer Bessie Head was the week’s most moving encounter. Bessie, a tough woman with a tiny, singsong voice issuing from an ample frame, said it had been worth coming all the way from Botswana to Adelaide just to meet André, ‘because, for the first time in my life, I have met a good white South African.’

  Writers’ Week takes place in and around a large marquee set in pleasant, palm-fringed lawns across the road from the main Festival Centre; half-establishment, half-fringe, it has in the past irritated some of the more pompous visiting writers by its informality. But that seemed to me to be its chief virtue. All week, writers and readers meandered in and out of the marquee, strolled on the lawns, dipped into the booktent and even, from time to time, stopped by the bar for a tinnie of Swan. The audiences are mostly friendly, but they do sometimes heckle: Adelaide’s own Barbara Hanrahan had to put up with one well-lubricated gentleman’s repeated advice to ‘shut up and give someone else a chance.’

  No hecklers, however, while Morris West, Australia’s bestselling novelist, spoke for an hour without once getting off the absorbing subject of his extremely high income.

  Everywhere you looked you saw excellent Australian writers. Elizabeth Jolley, deceptively frail to look at, with a profile uncannily close to Virginia Woolf’s, read what she called a couple of dances. ‘I don’t really dance myself,’ she told the audience, ‘but for some reason my characters often do.’ The dances were subtle, courtly, graceful. Later in the week Rodney Hall read from his magnificent novel Just Relations, winner of the Miles Franklin award: it was so good that you wished you had written it yourself. And there was Blanche d’Alpuget, the acute, level-headed biographer of Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister with the seventy-eight per cent popularity rating, a Labour leader who misses no opportunity of beating up the left. ‘His physical appeal is huge,’ Blanche d’Alpuget told me. ‘Men write to him to say they carry his photograph in their wallets and it gives them strength.’ What does that do to a man, I wondered, that adulation. When he arrives at rock concerts and walks through the crowd, people stand up as he passes. ‘Bob, it’s Bob. G’day Bob, good on yer, Bob.’ It seemed alarming to me, this leader-worship.

  ‘Well, of course,’ Blanche said, ‘what’s happening to him is totally corrupting.’

  Jolley, Hall, d’Alpuget; Thomas Keneally beaming at everyone and standing them drinks; and Patrick White, David Malouf, Peter Carey and Murray Bail weren’t even there … Australian literature seemed to be in extremely good shape. I was ashamed to have arrived knowing so little; I left knowing a little more; it was a good week.

  ‘Don’t you find,’ Angela Carter said one evening, ‘that there’s something a little exhausted about the place names around here? I mean, Mount Lofty, Windy Point.’ On another occasion, Bruce Chatwin said something similar: ‘It’s a tired country, not young at all. It tires its inhabitants. It’s too ancient, too old.’

  I was looking for the keys to Adelaide. And gradually things did come bubbling up from under that smooth, solid façade. On an excursion into the Adelaide Hills I was told how fires regularly devastated the region. I heard about the famous blaze on ‘Ash Wednesday’. Freak effects—as the flames surged over a road on which there were two petrol pumps, one blew up and the other was unharmed. And finally, almost casually, I was given hints about arson. What sort of people are these that burn the landscape? There is strangeness here.

  Hindley Street, Adelaide, looks lively when you first walk down it. Young people, nightspots, restaurants, street life. Then you notice the brothels and the winos. And one night a trail of blood along the pavement. Shoeprints in blood staggering along, ending up in a dark doorway. Another clue. And a couple of days later I hear about the vanishing youngsters. Sixteen-year-old girls and boys, disappearing into thin air. The police do nothing, shrug; teenagers are always leaving home. But they never turn up. I am told that parents of these dematerialized children have formed their own search organizations. Adelaide seems more eerie by the minute.

  On my last night in town, many of us go to a party thrown by Jim, a local sheep king. It is a housewarming: his last house with its priceless art collection was destroyed in the Ash Wednesday fire. The new place is in ritzy North Adelaide. An excellent party, and Jim is a generous and literate host. But then I am buttonholed by someone who wants to reminisce about his days in an English public school, and the double vision be
gins again. Later in the evening, a beautiful woman starts telling me about the weirdo murders. ‘Adelaide’s famous for them,’ she says, excitedly. ‘Gay pair slay young girls. Parents axe children and inter them under lawn. Stuff like that. You know.’

  Now I begin to understand Adelaide. Adelaide is the ideal setting for a Stephen King novel, or horror film. You know why those films and books are always set in sleepy, conservative towns? Because sleepy, conservative towns are where those things happen. Exorcisms, omens, shinings, poltergeists. Adelaide is Amityville, or Salem, and things here go bump in the night.

  Bruce Chatwin and I flew out from Adelaide at the end of Writers’ Week, heading for Alice Springs. Very quickly the greenery of Adelaide was replaced by the desert. The great, red infinity of that awesome moonscape set the previous week in its proper context. The desert, the harsh pure desert, was the reality, was Australia, was the truth; the town I was leaving stood revealed as a mirage, alien, a prevarication. I settled back into my seat, eager to reach the Alice.


  1991: A postscript. When this essay was first published, some of the citizens of Adelaide were upset by its reference to ‘weirdo murders’, even though I’d been told about such crimes by more than one resident of the city. A few days after the Mayor attacked me in the local paper, however, a group of unknown crazies climbed into the Adelaide Zoo at night and systematically, viciously, murdered just about all the animals …


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