Telling tales

Is it just me, or have you ever wondered why travel writers seem to accumulate many more interesting travel experiences than the average traveller?  It could be that they have that rare talent to see the bizarre in the everyday, but perhaps they also cheat a little.

Take Paul Theroux, for example.  In "The Great Railway Bazaar", his rail odyssey takes him to Burma.  On his way to the hill station of Maymyo he meets, on the train of course, the manager of the elegantly colonial Candacraig Hotel and relates their conversation.  I hadn’t been suspicious of this exchange, but when Miles Kington read it he was sceptical.  On the same rail trip for the BBC's "Great Journeys" series and writing about it in the accompanying book, his reaction was simply: "I don't believe it".

"Do you ever get those feelings", he wrote, "when you read long conversations in travel books between the writer and this extremely interesting character he just happened to meet on this potentially quite boring journey?  A feeling that it didn't quite happen that way?  That in short, he made it all up?"  Finding himself in Maymyo and in a position to verify the account, Kington asked the son of the now deceased manager whether the exchange actually took place.  Did Paul Theroux meet his father on the Maymyo Local?

"No, sir, he had that conversation with him right here in the hotel", was the reply.  "I suppose in the book he repositioned it because nothing else had happened to him on the train".  So it was mostly true, but relocated to fit the theme of the book.*  Kington says that he doesn't actually mind that "a lot of travel writing is fiction", but I'm not sure I agree.

Conversations are, of course, the easiest to manipulate.  Foreign characters always speak accurate and eloquent English, except where the opposite is required for comic effect.  This does make the account more readable, naturally, but what irritates me is travel writers juggling with the facts.

Writers are always looking for a punchy way to round off a chapter, to keep you keen to read the next one.  At the end of the tenth chapter of Stanley Stewart’s award-winning “Frontiers of Heaven”, the author arrives in Kashgar at the conclusion of a long, hard bus journey and heads for his hotel, in need of a more encouraging sight than what he finds.  "Finally we rattled down a long avenue of old trees", he writes, "past the remnants of the city walls and turned through a large gateway.  On the pillar I glimpsed the name: the Hotel Semen".

Very funny, I won't deny, but does it matter if it's not entirely accurate: that the hotel is in fact called the Hotel Seman.  There may be one sign that says "Semen" but what about all the others that don't?  I suppose it doesn't really matter if it makes the book more enjoyable, but it led me to wonder about the rest of the book.  Take, for example, his hilarious efforts to secure a train ticket out of Wuwei.  Did he really try to get himself arrested for espionage or propose marriage to the ticket vendor?  Maybe he did, but this section stretched my credulity even before I had read about the "Hotel Semen".  I certainly can't disprove it, but it would all be so much funnier if I believed it.

Even the great Bruce Chatwin admitted to distorting facts.  In his introduction to "What am I Doing Here" he writes that “however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work".  It's honest of him, but for me it detracts from the effect of the pieces.  Isn’t one of the joys of reading non-fiction the fact that the outlandish people and places described actually exist?

Finally, there is the case of the most famous travel writer of all.  Over the centuries minds have boggled over Marco Polo's descriptions of his travels to the Far East.  He has often been accused of flights of fancy but there are concerns that cast doubt on his whole story.  His travels allegedly took him down from Mongolia to Beijing.  Yet, as Frances Wood points out in her book "Did Marco Polo go to China?", he failed to remark on the Chinese language's unique script and he managed to enter China without noticing the Great Wall, in spite of the fact that he must have crossed it!

So did Marco Polo never leave his desk?  I think we should be told.

Copyright Nicholas White 2000

* Theroux later confirmes this in his sequel, “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”

This article was published in the UK in the October/November 2000 issue of Wanderlust magazine.