On Travel Writing. Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana, Penguin, 0140165843, £8.99
‘The fajiras sat on the steps of the Mazetta-Barra café and spat the bright purple pips of the delicious quinguanara fruit – a local delicacy - at the departing backs of the sminjally-clad womenfolk. These stately figures tottered on yigga heels and whispered to one another, hurrying so as not to miss the gigjenga. The sight made me melancholy; how different from home and yet, in so many ways, how similar.’
This, I should say immediately, is not Robert Byron. Nor is it Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban or William Dalrymple.
And it’s not about a particular place that I’ve ever visited, except in my head.
It’s a parody of all that I don’t like about travel writing, as a genre.
I find it difficult to believe that anyone with undamaged intellectual self-respect would choose to write travel literature. The whole idea, particularly these days, is based on a piece of bad faith – that there is such a thing as the unknown, the exotic. At its worst this leads to accounts of funny foreigners and their funny ways.
Even whilst Robert Byron was travelling through Persia and Afghanistan for The Road to Oxiana (the mid-1930s), the world had contracted enough for him to feel, much of the way, that he was far from the first visitor.
‘Look along the mountains to the void: the desert, that stony, empty sea. Drink the high air. Stroke the stone with your own soft hands. Say goodbye to the West if you own it. And then turn, tourist, to the East.’
A number of assumptions are made in this passage, with apparent confidence: that the writer can actually see what he says he sees; that the reader wants to know these sorts of detail; that there is a clear dividing line between West and East.
Part of Byron’s confidence comes from his background. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he wrote his first book at twenty-two. Acceptance, for him, was easy and fast.
The Road to Oxiana is a strange mixture of twentieth century manners and nineteenth century attitudes. Byron is an aesthete, never happier than when extolling the exquisite. (Which is probably why he was such a hero to Bruce Chatwin, who wrote a precious introduction to the old Picador edition.) This is the template for much of the travel writing that followed:
‘Morning comes. Stepping out on to a roof adjoining the hotel, I see seven sky-blue pillars rise out of the bare fields against the deilcate heather-coloured mountains. Down each the dawn casts a highlight of pale gold. In their midst shines a blue melon-dome with the top bitten off. Their beauty is more than scenic, depending on light or landscape. On closer view, every tile, every flower, every petal of mosaic contributes its genius to the whole. Even in ruin, such architecture tells of a golden age. Has history forgotten it?’
I don’t see how this could be done much better. On a purely visual level, Byron is doing his utmost to give us a splendid view. But what he sees is always seen as an outsider – even though, quite often, as an outsider who knows more (more information) about what he’s describing than the locals who live with such sights every day.
Paul Fussell is quoted on the back cover as saying, ‘What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what "The Waste Land" is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.’ And the comparison is accurate. This is definitely a Modernist product: fragmentary, somewhat desultory, aware of its belatedness. Stylistically it cuts out the dull, emphasizes the fun. It often reads like notes taken towards a longer, more dutiful book. This tone of holiday, of short-cut, is the one that readers of travel writing become addicted to. It treads the fine comic line between knowledge and knowingness:
‘Khoja Abdullah Ansari died in the year 1088 at the age of eighty-four, because some boys threw stones at him while he was at penance. One sympathises with those boys: even among saints he was a prodigious bore.’
But although one could still write like Robert Byron, his assumptions are not really ours. His confident access to the world and to himself, even in the middle of the Modernist fragmentation, is no longer viable.
Perhaps the only way to do travel writing really well, these days, is to go very far away and have a nervous breakdown; lose all sense of who one is, and turn the journey into a necessary attempt to return to a home that is with every moment more and more lost. Not many writers would be prepared to do this.