Literary Journeys are Made of These…

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Captions: Two fading Kuala Lumpur photographs, similarly reconstructed by Janet Halliday as she sketches a literary journey from the novel My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey, with its nostalgic setting in 1972, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Perhaps it was the lure of the indefatigable Michael Palin‘s tenacious journeys to the centre of the earth if you like, that coaxed my eye sharply enough towards the gaze of colourful streets. Like Palin whose shows, I so devotedly devoured on the UK television channels, I too willed that the mushrooming of magic could well be had  from the sudden turn of an unsuspecting corner, on a strange maze of pavements or crooked lane, somewhere delicously foreign.

It wasn’t long before I would head for HMV Records on Dublin’s Grafton Street, famed for its generous displays of dvd travel documentaries in the same way that Tower Records on an adjacent Wicklow St. would proudly acclaim to its selection of world cinema.  I lugged back boxed sets of Michael’s Palin’s Artic, New Europe and Sahara films to be reserved for cold winter evenings.

I was reminded once more of how closely connected my life lay between the combined intimacy of both film and literature and of how the different  art forms continued to seek some sort of marriage vow that would gently draw me into a multi-layered wonderment if not an erratic mix of literary gems; to be held to the present day.  This, while shaping  an already-expanding orbit of the arts. I travel intensely too when the heart demands it, either as a spontanous game and  hobby or simply to hush my nomadic spirit. Thus, from long visits to various international bookshops, I have now formed a bond even with flights, books and films but there is still plenty of room for that story to be left for another day.

While in London in 2005, I was drawn to Ingmar Bergman’s films that unfolded an excitable, quivering  interest in world literature like the gradual sliding of a silent  door.  Sadly, this was put to an urgent hibernation for a couple of years afterwards due to some personal circumstance back in Malaysia. I would then return to Europe at the first opportunity and creating a personal sanctuary in Dublin, Ireland, sometime in 2007, it was with a new welcoming contentment and renewed energy, that I returned to my books and films with a hungry passion. Without hesitation, I began to succumb to  a second round of virginal interest, with regards to a vast collection of Persian and Arabic literature, that seductively sought my hedonism out and subsequently too; its many artistic films.

In the last several months, it has been documentaries like Palin’s, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver’s culinary travels that have helped me appreciate both  the reading and savouring of travelogues, memoirs and regional narratives in a lingering, memorable way.

In fact, today, on writing my own book, I recall with a half-smile, my recent fervour in a small town in Tanzania where most of the locals know me and so I have no fear of walking its partially dangerous streets. With dedicated passion and fancying myself as a hopeful apprentice to Palin, I had for my own use of research strolled up and down a few streets scores of times, studying with bent head, a stone’s or tarred road’s every hidden secret that would make its land decidedly East African.

Naturally, now I too would warm to the literary journey.

Thus, here lie a few favourites:

In this wonderful BBC Feature Story that makes for a literary trail titled On the Trail of George Orwell’s Outcasts, Emma Jane Kirby retraces legendary novelist  George Orwell‘s footsteps, meticulously sketched out in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, where the author chronicled in apt detail,  the destitution of social outcasts. She measures her elegantly arranged reflections, not so much with expected brushstrokes of literary intensity as she does with the emphatic and patient concern of a social worker. Kirby interviews various personalities still living on the breadline and finds that nothing has really changed 80 years since the book was first published.

If you wish, you can also read Down and Out in Paris and London online, where every chapter is painstakingly structured after a commendable fashion.

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Whereas the Bengali teacher, poet & writer, Sumana Roy mirrors a kaleidoscope of sparkling introspections from a recent journey shadowing that of Bengal’s literary icon, the famed artist and writer, Rabindrath Tagore. Here Roy’s deeply personal literary journey while she ferries Tagore’s novella, Rajarshi close to her chest; is titled On the Tagore Trail (Tripura in North-East India).  It is an encounter heightened by fate and chance. Roy’s plane is delayed, landing only at nightfall.  She is immediately held beguiled by the warm evening climate and the following day’s moon to be ensnared by a mountain of thoughts on how Tagore himself would have received a day in his life and of how keenly the writer would himself have wrapped Roy’s similar observations as dearly as a necessary blanket, close to his everyday thoughts.

As her long feature plays itself out, the reader is drawn to the beauty of a writer’s pen; one who romances her subject but stays respectful of his sacred ghost. Roy treats the reader to a prism of colour and grace as her article leans on its refined artistry to draw readers as close to Tagore’s parlour as possible. Its spinework is one that threads its way to the reader’s heart using a subtle entertainment.  Roy dips into a palette, featuring  an assortment of quaint paraphernalia, Indian adornments, the anecdotes of family and friends, the impatience of her own eager footsteps and an essential architectural heritage, often natural to any literary journey. Sumana Roy  paints a slice of Tagore’s life on an enriching canvas where memory and literary genius blend into a remarkable mosaic of both thought and discovery.

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I also found this remarkable literary journey titled Faking it in Kuala Lumpur based on Peter Carey’s contemporary novel My Life as a Fake, its setting of which revolves around the capital city of Kuala Lumpur as it stood a few decades ago. I read the novel and warmed to a plot hosted by characters made up of expatriates and the intriguing mystery of a poet, settled into a slightly older, shabbier part of the city’s ancient streets in the year 1972.  The article, thoughtfully composed by Janet Halliday boasts a skilled neutral flavour…it is written with a blunt professional air and a ready commercial expertise. I get the feeling that the writer follows an inquisitive lead and while staying attracted to certain cultural norms, prefers to record careful observations as an outsider, rather than a willing participant or converted tourist.

In fact, the site Literary Traveller – from where this sauntering stroll was first published – also displays several other recorded European journeys featuring famous writers that had gone before either by virtue or biography or plot. You may choose from one of the several HERE. – susan abraham

Caption: There are several international jacket designs to My Life as a Fake. Displayed here is the UK version.

Credit: Photograph of Rabindranath Tagore is from HoffmanCreativePhotography.Org.

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