Word Clouds On The Move
A few days ago, I began reading the great American travel writer William Least Heat-Moon's old, early 80s classic 'PrairyErth: A Deep Map', on his days traveling the flatlands of Kansas. In most stores, the only surviving copies of this book are well thumbed paperbacks. When I was paying for the book, an older clerk at the cashier's till exclaimed: "Ah, I had forgotten about him." Then, while the cash machine processed my card payments, she flipped through the book, as if to check if a few recognizable words would tumble out. She smiled and handed the book back to me. Then said, a touch wistfully, "It feels like yesterday, when I first read him in college!" I nodded. I had nothing intelligent or useful to say, except watch her shuffle away to her next task behind the counter. On the subway back home, when I began to read Heat-Moon, I was struck by America's good fortune that one of its sons had sought to chronicle its geography with the care and attention of a lover. He had patiently waded through a parcel of Middle America's flatland, discovering its folds, spots, and creases, finding new vocabularies, reviving in the reader a desire to imagine what, for much of my life, I had only thought of as dreary hinterlands of this behemoth country. But once that feeling of awe towards Heat-Moon had washed way, I was keen to observe how he managed to say what he did with economy and precision. To understand how his words were put together, with an artisan's expertise before the advent of machines. To notice how his words birthed sentences, to recognize how from his sentences there emerged paragraphs, like buds in the gardens of a diligent monk. And from those paragraphs there accreted moods and emotions - some as terrifying as loneliness in old age and others that are as expansive and fulfilling as camaraderie among old friends. Ultimately from these concatenations, over the days, what became visible to me as a reader, was the carapace of narrative ambition inside which this cathedral size book was ensconced.
Heat-Moon is almost an exception when one thinks of travel writings. His writings, while filled with an unnatural grace, over-abundant curiosity and tenderness towards the American land, it is also marked by something less common. A recognition about the difficulties of travel, the boredom of simply lugging along from one place to another, the weariness of making small talk, the constant companionship of solitude that accompanies a traveler, no different than Sancho Panza who followed that sainted fool of La Mancha. Yet, when I read Heat-Moon, I constantly forget that what all great travel writing ultimately really is: an artifice born from talent, observation, and writerly cunning. HIs words don't feel like a work enamored of its own cleverness, sculpted and chiseled to reduce the lull, tedium, and throb of travel into something resembling a beauteous litany of adventurous happenstance. It, in essence, feels real. Often heavy, sometimes light, but ever flowing.
All that said however, over the past few weeks, my thoughts have returned to the question of how do travel writers really do it. i.e., how do they remember details, chronology of events, the expression on faces, the sense of openness or claustrophobia that the world fills them with. While reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's exquisite 'Roumeli' - about his travels in Northern Greece - I have often wondered about the vividness of his descriptions, the magnificence of what he has etched on his pages. The questions that emerge in my mind are not about his language - which is scrubbed clean of excess, leaving behind sharp eyed but compassionate observations of the non-urban Greeks - but his ability to pace his narrative in a manner that neither bores nor seems a case of an authorial sleight of hand. Did Fermor keep notebooks chock-a-block with details or were they merely cursory impressions which, when grafted along with memory birthed something extraordinary? If he did have notebooks, did he write down each event that transpired? In a scene that describes the wedding party of the Sarkatsans (who are transhumance shepherds of Europe), he writes about the appearance of the groom and his bride with her "withdrawn expressions". It is a small, little, throwaway detail. But it makes me wonder about the order of events that transpired: did he see the bride first or the groom first, did he sense the bride was forlorn because that is how it was or was that what all newly wed brides are meant to be in a patriarchal society? How reliable are these kind of memories in a traveller's recounting. Often, probably not much. But if so, does the writer have to tell the reader of his own failings, or does such diffidence mar the confident authorial tone that readers like?
* * *
A few years ago, when I traveled to Madurai, I had kept a diary of sorts. it was a collection of impressions in an handwriting that is often indistinguishable from hieroglyphics. Nothing in those notebooks were in any form that others or even I, a few years later, would be able to recognize. Even as I wrote them then, I couldn’t speak of their intrinsic value. The notebook was full of paragraphs of prose - prolix, lapidary and sometimes lucid. The writings inside the margins were the mainland that described subcontinent sized ideas that I sought to describe as I spent days in Madurai - India, God, experience, my Self and so on. On the margins, like littoral islands off the coast of a languorous country side, the diary was filled with an archipelago of broken thoughts, daily encounters, ideas, doodles and sentence fragments. Some passages about Madurai made little sense, others were no different than what we expect from harried diarists or inmates on death row: a sense of imminence and self-importance was writ large. Often the pages were a screed, on other occasions they were a bemused voice that could only see the pointlessness of ritualistic’s exertions in a city like Madurai. As for the pages themselves - filled with the odd melodramatic flourish - given that they were witnesses to all that my eye had seen - I had grown fond of them. Not just as repositories of ideas themselves but as real objects in this world.
Those pages in the diary had patiently absorbed whatsoever I had to tell them. They never laughed at my foolishness, never mocked my vanities or pitied me, never doubted the intent behind my intentions. In all of those of writings, the only rule I followed was to resist the lure of being clever: I had sought to record my earnestness. Lack of sincerity, slyness in prose, even if well written, bored me. Life was too short, I had told myself, to be lived ironically. In sum, those pages were a faithful reflection of my temperament: a retelling of my slow moving days in Madurai. Now that I look back on them, only a few sentences in them store away epiphanic details that have managed to stay afresh. The rest have an the odor of decay that all written words are born with.
Days later, as we drove out of Madurai, while falling asleep in the heat, an idea to turn those notes into a book emerged. Later when I woke up from my nap, I found my palm stained, like aureoles around a dark breast, by perfectly shaped grey semi-circles,. The pencil’s graphite from the notebooks had smudged onto me. I had held the notebook, in a fevered grip during my nap, perhaps subconsciously fearful, that my words would fly out if I loosened my fists’ curl. Already, ripped from the spiral bound, a page had come undone. Wary premonitions easily followed: other pages will tear, a cup of tea shall spill over the notebook and eventually after neglect, those fierce critics of prose in the tropics - the silverfish insects - will get to them. Before long, these small, seed-sized handwritings that had filled these pages with observations and thought will cede away their presence to other matters of importance. The words themselves shall vanish as if they never existed and all too easily join a library of unwritten words.
* * *
Since then, I have never gotten around to writing a book about Madurai, far less any travel book. However, when reading travelogues, I keep returning to the same question: how well can words correspond with the reality a writer briefly experiences. After all, life doesn't reveal itself in clean blocks of well paced events, which would allow a writer to render them into something tangible and splendid. The visible parts of travel are often congealed into small blocks of happenings, after which there follows periods filled with the tedium of movement, headaches about logistics, hours of commonplace nothingness. Transmuting this banal aspect of journeying into literary gold, into observation that refracts on some underlying theme is what most travel writers, like amateur alchemists working with lead, try to do. More perspicacious travel writers however try to do something different, something even more ambitious. They seek to describe the alchemist's dull metal as is while rearranging the reader's mental furnitures differently, which allows him to imagine the lusterless object as something mysterious, alluring, and ultimately inexhaustible. To do so, one must walk on the proverbial razor's edge -- to write words that creates the affect of movement amidst stillness, to construct sentences that reveals the strangeness of the worlds curled up in everyday life, to build paragraphs that reflect on truth rather than obsess with verisimilitude, and to craft accounts of the passage of time rather than be merely subservient to chronology. All of this makes travel writing a difficult craft. One that, if carelessly done can easily traipse into self-indulgence or simple minded diary writing, instead of creating something luminous, something life like. Maybe even art itself.