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Magical Journalism

What's more important to travel writing, the picture or the frame?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Ryszard Kapuściński is a great hero of mine. He was a Polish writer whose journalism and books looked for the truths of human experience in some of the most difficult and dangerous corners of the earth. His obituary – he died in 2007 – called him ‘one of the most credible journalists the world has ever seen’. However, his credibility and value lay not so much in the accuracy of his on-the-ground reportage but in the way he used personal experience to interpret the world, sometimes embellishing his experiences or inventing details to reach a greater truth. Kapuściński called his work ‘literary reportage’ and said he didn’t believe in journalistic objectivity. His style has been called ‘magic journalism’. Some have called it lies. But it is his style of writing that for me is his most compelling attribute.

Sent out into the world in the 1950s as an agency reporter, from what was then Communist Poland, Kapuściński always had a different angle on the countries he explored, many of them subject to Western imperialism; India, China, Asia and Latin America. Inevitably, he has been accused of being a spy, and he may have had to accommodate himself to some extent to the prevailing powers in order to have the freedom to continue his work. But his understanding of the shadowy politics of power in the Communist world informed much of his writing, especially his studies of despotism: The Emperor: downfall of an autocrat, about the fall of Haile Selassie, which is often interpreted as a veiled critique of events in Poland, Shah of Shahs, about the downfall of the Shah, Imperium, on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and an unfinished study of Idi Amin.

But he was also a poet, and a January 2015 BBC documentary about him was entitled Poet on the Frontline. He and Gabriel García Márquez, a great admirer of his, reckoned the best route to journalism was through poetry.

My favourite of his books is Travels with Herodotus (2004), in which he follows in the footsteps of the 5th century BC Greek historian, whom he emulated as ‘an interpreter of cultures…and a builder of bridges across cultural barriers’. In this and all his volumes he successfully blends elements of reportage, fiction and philosophical reflection to convey the texture of ordinary life and give voice to the experiences of local people, from snow-bound Russians to Angolan soldiers, talking to them, often living with them, in humble if not squalid circumstances.

He observes from the bottom up: a worm’s eye-view of the state. He marvels at the insanely vast quantity of barbed wire necessary for Russia’s borders, and notes that it is no wonder they have no spoons. In his book The Shadow of the Sun (1998), about strife-torn Africa, he observes that in Africa people no longer speak French or English, rejected Colonial languages, but only their own local tongues, and how isolating this is proving to be.

He is fond of recounting improbable rumours, insisting that, true or not, they still form part of the social landscape. He always wants to get beneath the surface. In the 2012 biography by Artur Domoslawski, there is a description of him at a press conference in Northern Uganda, where negotiations were under way between government and rebels. Instead of listening to the official talks, Kapuściński disappeared. He was later discovered talking to some ordinary soldiers in a rough shack, who were complaining about not being paid and thus forced to rob local villages.

If he did invent – or reassign – details it was for good reason. In The Emperor: downfall of an autocrat (1978) did he really talk to the pillow man about his responsibility to increase the height of the diminutive Haile Selassie when he sat on his various thrones? Does it matter? Kapuściński must have heard or observed this telling detail at some point, and it tells a larger truth about the power and image of the Emperor. Kapuściński said he took authentic elements from reality in order to convey a deeper meaning.

In his introduction to Kapuściński’s last work, The Other, Neil Ascherson, (whose own book, Black Sea (1995), is another masterly example of this kind of travel reportage) writes; ‘A question often raised about him was where – in him – the frontier between literature and reporting ran. It’s a hard one to answer, not least because there is no such wire barrier (floodlit and dog-patrolled) between the two forms.’ Ascherson says he thinks that Kapuściński did what many journalists do: selected from his notes, changed the order in which things were said, dropped parts, sharpened up the best passages for literary effect. This does not detract from his work, says Ascherson, as long as the text is not presented as a verbatim record.

Kapuściński is not called a travel writer, perhaps because he was always foremost a newspaper correspondent. But he reports on foreign places much like Freya Stark, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux and others, travelling and observing. I begin to wonder, why call their books travel books? Chatwin, for one, never liked to be called a travel writer. At best, their books are so much more than simply visits to foreign lands, but rather invaluable reports of life elsewhere in all its complexity. Colin Thubron on Russia; William Dalrymple on India and the Middle East, Lawrence Durrell’s writings on the Mediterranean and particularly Cyprus at a critical political moment. They cover politics, geography, traditions, history, and people most of all. It is all precious reportage, very far from the sense of travel as a pleasurable sojourn in exotic places.

But as academics Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan suggest in their rather sniffy overview of the genre, Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing (2000), travel writing is balanced somewhere between subjective enquiry and objective documentation. Sometimes to the extent that the destinations are simply backdrops for the personal quest of the writers. And therein lies the rub. How to construct a story which is authentic and engaging without departing from some kind of essential truth?

I am categorised as a travel writer myself and have always preferred to write about local activities than beaches and hotels; tea plantations in Indonesia, rice growing in the Philippines. But these days I sometimes feel a fraud, since all I seem to do is go to one place and write about that. France. South of, more specifically the Pyrenees. In truth, mostly one particular valley. The writing blends memoir and historical background with contemporary reportage. Personally I have rarely departed from accurate reporting, only occasionally transposing a conversation to a different place, or positioned at a more useful moment in the narrative.

Still, I would always defend the need to manipulate the material if necessary to convey the story. I am sure other writers do the same. The indomitable Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example, sat down to write his remarkable three volumes of pre-war travels in Europe, thirty years later, almost entirely from memory. (He had mislaid his travel journals.) How could he recall so much? And was it indeed true? Chatwin has been criticised for imaginative rendering of events and altering characters to suit himself. I have always been impressed by William Dalrymple’s ability to conjure the appropriate priest or shopkeeper to tells us the local history at just the right moment.

The value in the end lies in the finished work. What it tells us about the realities of life reported in as fresh and authentic a way as possible. Sometimes a writer may be simply the ‘camera’, in Isherwood’s phrase, reporting what they see and hear, and sometimes they may also offer up their own experience, how their travels have changed them. Perhaps more importantly how their own perspective affects their reportage.

What is important for me is the total immersion of the writer: the deep commitment, for example, of Gerald Brenan, in South from Granada, who lived the life of the village, high in the hills of Andalucia in the 1920s; or Colin Thubron, who says when he travels he never takes a book with him, or camera or recording equipment. The best travel writing demands dedicated observation and engagement with place and people. It is more about place than journey, though no doubt many are initially compelled by wanderlust.

For Freya Stark, a passion for the Arab world, and her deep fascination for its people, motivated and informed her travels. She learned Arabic, of course. Her level of observation – making notes from the back of a camel as often as not – was almost forensic. She took photographs too, but it is her assiduous daily notes that form the basis of her writing.

Perhaps most importantly good travel writing – in whatever format – now fills an important gap of reportage. No longer do we have foreign correspondents in Uzbekistan and every far-flung corner of the world. We need writers who travel and embed themselves to inform us. And better indeed that they should be independent (if not objective) and not paid for by governments or media barons. While modern technology means locals can communicate what is happening with astonishing immediacy, and this empowerment is vital, we also need writers with knowledge and experience of these worlds, writers who have been there and observed and recorded, before the precious mosque was destroyed, the Assyrian temple blown up, the tribal village obliterated by floods.

Although the format doesn’t really matter, TV travel has rarely done it for me. I have found it too superficial. There are too many layers between the presenter and the audience; the researchers who have prepared the information, the film crew lurking somewhere, however much they try to convince us that the traveller is soulfully alone in the desert, wearing his continuity-required blue shirt. There is no authentic response to the place.

I changed my mind about TV travel reportage just recently, watching author Simon Reeve reporting on the Caribbean and describing the realities behind the sunkissed beaches, drug wars, abandoned bombs on the seabed, the ubiquitous, endemic poverty. And he doesn’t wear a blue shirt either.

Like Kapuściński, Reeve is coming from a different place than the traditional gentleman travellers of old. He brings the critical attitude of a younger generation, aware of environmental issues, the drug traffic between the Americas, the impact of development on local people. He finds his way into a top security prison in Honduras, talks to a remote indigenous tribe in Columbia about climate change, and finds hope for the economy in the marijuana crop in St Vincent. This too is magic journalism — material selected and tightly edited to produce the view he wants to convey.

I was interested to note that he sailed right past Mustique, the celebrity island which brings in a significant proportion of the income of St Vincent and the Grenadines. It wasn’t mentioned and wasn’t actually relevant to his project of finding out about the real people of the Caribbean. And I was reminded of my own visit there, to see a rich and generous chum. I found the luxury uncomfortable, being waited on by black servants even more so. But I enjoyed talking to them, once I had penetrated the Caribbean patois, and I was intrigued to hear about their local church. So I went to the little wooden island church one Sunday and swayed and sang along with them all ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, ‘Hallelujah’, and realised that there I had found the most authentic experience on Mustique.

Rosemary Bailey’s most recent book is Love and War in the Pyrenees: a Story of Courage, Fear and Hope, 1939-1944, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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