Discovering the world one page at a time
WHEN Redmond O’Hanlon decided to set off into the jungles of Borneo in 1983, he was warned that vipers, cholera, crocs, ticks, tuberculosis, malaria, rabies and at least 1700 types of parasitic worms awaited him and his sceptical travelling companion, the poet James Fenton.
The chaps survived, although Fenton, after one too many suppers of worms, declared he would never travel again with his eccentric friend. O’Hanlon’s book Into the Heart of Borneo is a classic, the kind of travel narrative that rarely gets written any more — there are too few boundaries left to cross, virtually no realm unexplored.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t visit dynamic regions, such as Asia, in contemporary comfort and style and experience (and contrast) myriad places through the eyes of the great adventurers who’ve gone before us. I am thinking of Colin Thubron in China and Tibet, Norman Lewis in India and Indonesia and, of course, Eric Newby traversing the Hindu Kush and Pico Iyer in Nepal and Japan. Oddly, among the most insightful books about late 19th-century Japan are by the Greek-born writer Lafcadio Hearn, who’s still honoured in his adopted country in much the same way as the peripatetic Lord Byron is an abiding hero in Albania.
Fiction with a strong sense of geographic context also plays its part in illuminating destinations and I believe a lively novel based in, say, Mumbai or Manila can reveal more telling details about those cities than a conventional facts-and-figures guidebook.
There has been a boom in cosy crime fiction set in Asia and to find out what makes Laos tick, for example, dip into Colin Cotterill’s series starring national coroner Dr Siri; similarly, Shamini Flint’s novels about Singapore’s Inspector Singh serve up Asia on a plate as her policeman gads about to Bali, India, Cambodia and Malaysia (so far). Mind you, while no one was arrested, Fenton would probably call his escapade with O’Hanlon a crime against all known standards of comfort.
There are too few boundaries left to cross, virtually no realm unexplored