“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemingway, The Moveable Feast
“India, the new myth–a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.” Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
“In Wenceslaus Square, in Prague, a guy is throwing up. Another guy comes up to him, pulls a long face, shakes his head, and says: “I know just what you mean.” Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
“The idea that at each successive moment he was deeper into the Sahara than he had been the moment before, that he was leaving behind all familiar things, this constant consideration kept him in a state of pleasurable agitation.” Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Some writers leave their mark on literature. Other writers leave their mark on places. Apart from the places in the quotes mentioned above think of Pamplona and Hemingway, Sierra Leone and Graham Greene (The Heart of the Matter), Mexico and DH Lawrence, Jamaica and Ian Fleming, Conrad’s African heart of darkness. Either through their writing or through extended stays these European and American writers have made themselves part of the mythography of the foreign places they call home.
It is, in many ways, a remarkable achievement Writers write because death hangs over us like it hangs over everyone else; we write so we’re remembered, to steal a column from the hallowed temple of immortality. Most writers achieve it in the annals of literature. We think of the likes of Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and so on, as masters of the novel, role-models for generations of writers indebted to their genius. And of course, all writers crave this.
But there is another brand of immortality some of the less academic, more adventurous writers managed to acquire. Writers who were curious, hard-living, hardcore, hedonistic, or reclusive ventured out into the world, made a home in foreign climes, and were inspired by their new home’s imagery. They could marry European or American values, morals and concerns to exotic new landscapes, new peoples, and unearthed something more stay-at-home craftsmen missed out on.
I’m filled with admiration and enthusiasm for these writers. The likes of Kipling, Orwell, Hemingway, Fleming, Conrad, Greene, Waugh who, either for a short time or over a longer stretch, called foreign places home. India, Catalonia, Cuba, Jamaica, Indonesia, Vietnam, Africa – these are all places with their own endemic literature but the rest of the world remembers them from the portraits painted by outsiders.
And this is symptomatic of what I always argue for. Travel creates diversity, brings more colour; it’s not about the place, it’s not about the traveller, but it’s about the marriage of both. Spain is Spain. Hemingway is Hemingway. But Hemingway in Spain – magic! And do you think James Bond would have been conceived if Ian Fleming had not migrated to Jamaica? These writers discovered a new meaning of life, a new happiness, a new outlook on life, from people who have spent centuries being evolved in an environment radically different from their own.
And so, here is a list of places that I want to visit legendary writers have already blazed a trail, and whose names are an integral part of the mythology of the place.
Hemingway and Pamplona:
“We had coffee at the Iruña, sitting in the comfortable wicker chairs, looking out from the cool of the arcade at the big square.” Hemingway’s novel – the greatest travel novel ever written, an inimitable beacon – The Sun Also Rises put Pamplona and San Fermin on the map. Decades later Hemingway would muse: “Pamplona was rough, as always, overcrowded… I’ve written Pamplona once, and for keeps. It is all there, as it always was, except forty thousand tourists have been added. There were not twenty tourists when I first went there… four decades ago.” Without Hemingway San Fermin would have been another minor feast. And Pamplona just another dry, brown, by-the-wayside Spanish town.
Paul Bowles and Tangier:
Another American expat writer who dedicated his life to a beautiful, unique country, this time Morocco and specifically the Mediterranean city of Tangier. Renowned for being a hub of expats and activity that attracted the likes of William S Burroughs, Bowles made the city his home for 52 years and immortalised it in many of his writings, especially in the iconic Let It Come Down. Paul Bowles was also a prolific travel writer who wrote travel essays about the roads less travelled, from the Sahara to Central America and Hindu and Islamic lesser-known gems. Here is Paul Bowles on Tangier: “In those days Tangier was an attractive, quiet town with about 60, 000 inhabitants. The Medina looked ancient, its passageways were full of people in bright, outlandish costumes, and each street leading to the outskirts was bordered by walls of cane, prickly-pear and high-growing geraniums.”
Paul Bowles in Tangier.
Ian Fleming and Jamaica
“I wrote every one of the Bond thrillers here with the jalousies closed around me so that I would not be distracted by the birds and the flowers and the sunshine outside… Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it.” How strange, that most English of icons, James Bond, was born in the tropical climes of Jamaica in the mind of a relaxed British spy. Ian Fleming built himself a villa on Jamaica which he named Goldeneye after a war operation he took part in and he lived next door to English singer and playwright, the divinely camp Noel Coward. Fleming was a solitary man and a bird-lover, in fact, the name James Bond was ripped directly from an American ornithologist called, you guessed it, James Bond. The villa provided Fleming with all his pleasures, including birdwatching and scuba-diving, and hosted many famous guests like Truman Capote, Cecil Beaton and Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
Graham Greene and Haiti, Vietnam and Sierra Leone
Graham Greene, the English ‘Catholic’ novelist was as good as travelling as he was at writing. He travelled, like Bowles, to many of the world’s lesser known, rougher places. But unlike Bowles Greene didn’t merely write travelogues about these places, he wrote novels. Some of his best novels, in fact. Novels about places no Westerner before or since had written novels about, thus etching his name in the lore of those countries. Like poor, tyrannised Haiti brutalised by the Duvalier tyranny. Greene’s novel The Comedians is set in Haiti and is a critical attack, anthropological on detail, on Duvalier. Greene wrote of Haiti: “poor Haiti itself and the character of Doctor Duvalier’s rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night.” In The Heart of the Matter Greene draws on his experience as an MI6 agent in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and brought to attention a dark, sinuous, elaborate country to the rest of the Western world. As he did with Vietnam, before the Vietnam War put it front and centre of the world. In fact, in The Quiet American, Greene could be said to have predicted the disastrous Vietnam War. It is still popular and common for visitors of Ho Chi Minh to take a Graham Greene tour. “I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here.”
Joseph Conrad and the Congo
In Conrad’s slender masterpiece The Heart of Darkness he painted a haunting Impressionistic vignette of Africa’s foreboding heart. He is harsh on the colonialist’s boot-stepping on the landscape and people, and he is about as poetic as he can be about a place that scared him and ought to scare anyone else. I’ll leave it in Conrad’s masterly hands: “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.”
Bear in mind that in this list I have left out writers who immortalised their home countries. Not to take anything away from them. Writers like Salman Rushdie who revived India’s literature with masterpieces like Midnight’s Children. There is James Joyce who kind of flipped things around; he emigrated from his native Ireland yet still managed to force his name onto the walls and bars of that literary giant with Ulysses and Dubliners. Milan Kundera also put Prague on the map from faraway Paris. Dickens is London. And Haruki Murakami put Japan in the ring of global literature. Fair play to them. But, to paraphrase Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness: the travel, the travel!