As another trip looms in the near future, back to sunny England and heatwave Madrid, I begin the arduous, torturous, mind-numbingly long process of deciding what book to take with me on this 10-day trip. I feel like a chef deciding what restaurant to eat in or some whore-junkie mulling over the inevitable quandary: local or foreign.
Inevitably, those who don’t get it will make naïve comments: just choose a book, it’s only a book, you’ll hardly have time to read anyway. But let’s block off that symphony of ignorance for now, like a child putting its hands on its ears and going lalalalala. Some people don’t understand, right? I’ll try to put it like this: you know how Halley’s Comet is visible for one night every seventy or so years? Everything has to be perfect and if you’re lucky enough you get to see it once in your lifetime. It’s like that, you know, only less so. Slightly.
Travelling isn’t as rare as Halley’s Comet, but you know what is: a perfect coming together of simple, harm-free, life-affirming, ennobling, enriching, meditative pleasures such as reading and travelling. It’s an Epicurean’s wet-dream – believe me, I know. Reading on a plane, a train, at night in your hotel, on a bench you’ve never sat on before in a square you’ve never seen before: these are pleasures to die for. Coke-addicts and alcoholics have got it all wrong. Though, in fairness, so do Buddhists and monks. This is all you need. And I can’t explain it any further. I won’t. It would ruin its zen-ness.
But what books do make the best travelling companions? What criteria do you use to adjudicate? There are many possible philosophies. One is the symmetrical one. Say you’re travelling to London and you take Dickens, or you’re going to France and you take Hugo. Not bad going, I would say. Then there’s the out-there mode of thinking. When travelling we see things in a new light, our cognition is buffed up, so why not take some contemplative, even difficult books and try to crack them: say maybe something of Richard Feynman, or Hegel, or even something religious like a Quran or The God Delusion. If you’re not so bloody-minded and you’re maybe going on a beachy, do-little, drink much holiday, you might want to go for the light-reading credo. Take a detective novel with you, or a romance, a lightweight paperback, something exotic like a Graham Greene or something you can read indifferently like an Anthony Bourdain kitchen-crime-noir novel, or hell, why not see what the fuss is about, bite the bullet and read 50 Shades (just not in public, never). You could also go for the light non-fiction option, read a travel book of Theroux or even just a travel guide, or a biography of someone you’re curious about like Malala or Frank ‘Frank’ Lampard; that’ll also do for your light, breezy holiday.
And in truth there’s no right option – only what’s right for you. My thought process is somewhat more mathematical. I take my travelling and reading seriously, folks. I try to empathise with my future self; what kind of mood will the place inspire in me? And then, what kind of book will accentuate that, give it that little extra buzz like a shot of lemon after a tequila. Also, the book has to aesthetically fit into its new, borrowed climes. To elaborate on my thought process a wee bit more and perhaps offer some insight I’ll go through some samples of book – holiday combo that I’ve gone for in the past. And it goes without saying, except I’ll say it anyway; you never forget what book you’ll take with you abroad. It really is just like children – I’m guessing.
The Double Flame by Octavio Paz – Valencia, Spain
The first time I went abroad at the mouldy age of 19 to a city I would later come to revere the way a Catholic reveres the Virgin, I wasn’t as picky as some might say I am today. I just happened to take with me what I was reading at the time. In my mid-youth I was a hardcore surrealist. My fledgling shelves were exclusively dedicated to the likes of Dali, Breton, Garcia Lorca and the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. I had been hooked by his poetry ever since I read Eagle Or Sun? (still a must-read) and the way he used Mexican, Latin and downright guttural imagery made him an ideal candidate for inspiration in Valencia. He was a socialist too and Valencia and the rest of Catalunya is a good ambiance for socialism.
In the book Paz traces the history of eroticism in the human psyche in general and in literature specifically. Paz seems to have read up on his evolutionary biology and, more excitingly for a 19-year-old, on his Marquis de Sade. It is a stirring book of non-fiction written by a great dissident, sensual, deeply Mexican poet – and with luck, it married itself beautifully to the Valencia I was discovering. A vibrant, youthful city, no frills, full of separatist graffiti, energy old and new. It was all I need it to read Octavio Paz and learn how to truly love that city.
A city which, on my last day there, almost brought me to my knees. Our flight was in the early afternoon, so we had to leave the city quite early. So I went for my usual early-morning stroll, this time, with the book under my arms. As the late Spanish sun was still coming to I went to sit down on the fountain at the Plaza del Virgen, the square still quiet and innocent. There I read a few intimate, forceful pages, then closed the book and looked upon the city that had seduced me. Sad and morose I still had the fighting, dissident words of Octavio Paz coursing through me, so I got up and promised the city I would be back, no buts, no arguments!
And I kept my promise.
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa – Emilio Romagna, Italy
Italy is a place that takes itself seriously via non-serious means. It is a hedonistic place that worships food and fashion just as much as it worships la Madonna. So I thought (did I really, or is this just hindsight?) of taking a book that would be a guide, a GPS through nothing less than reality. He was then and still is now my favourite poet – all four of him. Portugal’s reclusive, alcoholic, national poet: Fernando Pessoa. He was about as Italian as fish and chips. But as I went through Emilio Romagna falling in love with stinking factories that produce divine Parmigiano-Reggiano, learnt the true nature of Bolognese (ragu), feasted on ice-creams made by nuns and tasted freshly made ravioli and seafood risottos cooked up by Italian catering students, I felt I needed something more ethereal, more out-there, less down-to-earth.
So I had the Book of Disquiet, a treasure trove of metaphysical insights; a book of fiction, of prose and philosophy, that doesn’t really go anywhere but up. The writing and the thoughts expounded in it were like nothing I had ever read before:
“My past is everything I failed to be.”
“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.” (An exquisitely Portuguese sentiment, captures their spirit better than fado.)
“To have opinions is to sell out to yourself. To have no opinions is to exist. To have every opinion is to be a poet.”
And so on. A perfect antidote, thought at times a garnish, to Italian high-mindedness and cultural elitism. And yet, the after-taste the book left me with was similar to the after-taste most Italian food left me with: life is better when complexities are somehow magically simplified – that is perfection. Pessoa was just like anything good in Italy; surprising and simple.
Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss – Aberystwyth, Wales
What do the rainforests of Brazil have in common with the rainy streets of Wales? Not much except people. I was going through an anthropology phase when I first set foot on Malta’s old colonial master, Great Britain. And I always knew, growing up, that the Maltese had inherited something from each of their past colonial masters. The British were our last colonial masters, and in someway or another I was raised alongside them, speaking their language as much as my own, so the legacy they left us should be the easiest to see. So my holiday to see family over there, in the small, picturesque, surprising little university town of Aberystwyth (that isn’t the hardest-to-spell name you’ll find in Wales by a long shot!) turned out to be, or I made it into, an anthropological expedition to find out what specifically we inherited from the Brits.
And who better to teach me how to think, how to look, observe and study than the French master of anthropology, the structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss. Tristes Tropiques, or Sad Tropics, was a travelogue about his voyages into the Brazilian heart of darkness and his observations of the native tribes that lived there. It is a work of adventure, philosophy, literature, sociology; altogether, a polymath’s book, like all good anthropological works should be.
I remember reading it in a small café in Aber’s high street, a charming, rustic place, and then I remember having some biscuits, whilst my girlfriend had tea, and I wrote a poem about tea, one of the few things I could actually find that unites the British and the Maltese. That and our surprising uncomplicated nature. Give us a pub, some cheap beers, good food, and we’ll give you an unforgettable evening. I could never understand how people call the British cold. Even in such stark climes I’d never met such warm people. And they can drink too, even their women, my God, that was a revelation as startling as anything Levi-Strauss could have unearthed!
Silas Marner by George Eliot – Rome (you know where it is)
A classic book for a classical city. And, an atheistic book for a the Catholic capital of the world. I knew, just as anyone who goes to Rome knows, that I will be seeing the Vatican and many other grand churches beside (grandest amongst them the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore), so I thought I might need a bit of a counter-weight, something to tone down the grandeur I would be seeing. And yet, I didn’t want to take something cynical. So no Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, but rather something more understated, lyrical. So, George Eliot, right?
Well, ish. This was perhaps the one and only swing-and-a-miss book I read on my travels. A slim book, set in Midlands, in the 19th century, about a disgraced weaver trying to ingratiate way back into society, a society changing from rural to industrial before our eyes. Hardly shouts out Rome! very much does it? Take nothing away from it. It is a beautifully lyrical, sharply realistic work and George Eliot is genial in her obsession of people and their thinking lives, a pioneer, a woman. But not the best thing to be reading when immersing in the vivacity of modern Rome and the eloquence of its ancient twin. When you’re eating the best food of your life you don’t 19th century England feels like a premature, you know. It didn’t enhance the hedonistic, proud, strolling heights of Rome.
In fact – well no, not in fact, I didn’t mean it, heaven forbid – I ended up forgetting the book in the hotel room! I realised when I was back home unpacking. I could have called the hotel and arranged something with them. But no, I had to make amends. I bought the book again and on another day, maybe when in England, in the Midlands, or somewhere more idyllic, I will give Silas Marner a second chance.
As a final note: here as some of the candidates short-listed to accompany me to 3 days in England and 7 in Madrid. Any votes, by you, the literate electorate, would be welcome!
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Henderson the Rain King – Saul Bellow
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
The Plumed Serpent – DH Lawrence
An Outcast on the Islands – Joseph Conrad
The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
A Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
The Mosquito Coast – Paul Theroux