"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Travel In Greene-Land

I am an admirer of Graham Greene, and find in his stories of travel, alienation, and especially moral and religious crisis, a writer of subtlety, depth, and insight.  As one who has travelled much of his life to as places as far-flung as those described by Greene, and


e for whom travel for all its dislocation and difficulty – or perhaps because of them – I have gained insights and perspective from him.

I was always anxious before travelling, less about the pitfalls of post-Civil War Angola, the political anarchy of Ivory Coast, the crime and social dysfunction of Kenya, the endless civil unrest in Bangladesh, than about leaving my familiar, settled, and routine life.  I was not afraid of adventure, for romance was always on the other side.  I simply was anxious about being wrenched from my life of family and predictable comfort.  It was because of that sharp anxiety that the experiences of travel were so pointed and transformative.  Because I came from a settled life which I could navigate like a blind man, the new world of new countries was especially clear and bright.

Samanth Subramaniam, in a review of a recent Pico Iyer book (The Man Within My Head)in which the author writes of his kinship with Graham Greene, writes:

In his guise of travel writer, Iyer has really been our most elegant poet of dislocation. Ever since Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1988, he has not so much travelled as wrenched himself from place to place; he has found kindred disquieted souls in disquieting locations, all out of joint with their space and time. Other travel writers attempt to feel at home in the world; Iyer thrives on alienation, because it is the facets of this alienation that make up his origin and his destination, his means of transport and his ports of transit. His kinship with Greene, whom he calls "the patron saint of the foreigner alone", has already been implicit in his books; Iyer has always been Fowler in Saigon, or Wormold in Havana, or Plarr in Corrientes, or any of Greene's other unsettled Englishmen abroad.

My dislocation was always temporary. I knew I had a home which I never questioned.  Although my travel was always personal and revelatory, I was never Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, doomed to wander the earth, or a Foreign Legionnaire fleeing from responsibility, debt, and harassing women.  I was not looking for enlightenment like Wordsworth when he crossed the Alps and saw the world from the top of Mt. Blanc with perfect clarity and vision.  I was neither wanderer nor seeker, but I found many answers nonetheless.  In all the more than fifty countries I visited in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, I saw a familiar playing out of history and the human nature that underlay it.  All societies whether tribal or imperial, and all individuals whether alone or grouped in families, acted out of the same self-interest, the same imperative to expand territorial perimeters, increase wealth, power, influence, and status.  With all the diversity in culture we are all the same.

Greene’s characters are lonely, dispirited, shipwrecked souls.  Querry (A Burnt Out Case) is a British architect who has lost has spiritual way and moves to Africa to work in a leper colony.  Although his outward motives seem clear – a desire to help the unfortunate – he is only seeking the context of others more miserable than he in which to immerse himself and to forget his loss of faith, purpose, and meaning.  Scobie (The Heart of the Matter) a long-serving policeman on the West Coast of Africa is also an unhappy but resigned man, living in the most remote and untraveled parts of Africa – The White Man’s Grave – in a stultifying marriage to an unbalanced woman.  His Catholic faith keeps him faithful, but after his wife finally leaves, he has a long affair which is never happy but always ridden with religious guilt.

Greene was a man riven by doubt, unable to give himself entirely to a person or to a faith – even as he knew that to refrain from such commitment was no way to live. Greene, Iyer writes, spent "his whole life searching for a haven that, were he to find it, he would only exile himself from or spoil, and then begin the search again." Iyer negotiates these ideas – of detachment, of faith, of home and belonging, of love, of displacement – turning them over and over like river pebbles, puzzling over their place in his own life, thinking them through.

Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel has collected the writings of many travelers from Ibn Battuta and Herodotus to Mungo Park, Paul du Chaillu, to people like Pico Iyer; and remarked how all of them told of the particular transformation that took place if one travelled alone.  I hated the moment of departure, kissing my children goodbye, hugging my wife, and waving from the cab; but soon I could feel the muscles in my back relax and the anxious fatigue disappear. Chatting with the Bangladeshi taxi driver was the first step in my elision from home to alone.  I was no longer a husband, a father, a son, a brother, and a friend.  I was only me, independent for a month, free to explore my new environment and my reactions to it.

I often had the feeling when I was very far from home that I would somehow never make it back. Tossing and turning in a stifling room in Timbuktu or waiting in the farthest Angolan outpost near the Congolese diamond-smuggling border, I thought I would never leave, that my adventures had this time taken me one place too far.  I have spent hours and days in a self-enforced solitary confinement. I spent three weeks in a cement room in a hotel in Puno on the altiplano of Peru during the coldest, rainiest season.  The altiplano can be spectacularly brilliant, Lake Titicaca blue and deep, Illimani and other snow-capped peaks inspiring; but in the dreary, wet, slogging winter, all is grey, depressing, and futile.  It was at these times that I had glimmerings of the isolation and remove of Graham’s characters.  There were no insights here, just painful loneliness.

So, I share and appreciate Greene’s sensitive unhappiness in the loneliness of exile; but I have been just an interloper for whom the security and comfort of family and familiarity was only hours away – a neophyte. 

Greene’s simple, elegant, lambent language is somehow the only voice that can tell the tale of Scobie and Querry. Every few years I pull out my tattered, fading paperbacks which I used to carry with me and read when I was in Africa, and re-read them.  His solitary vision never fades.

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