This is not your usual travel writing. Granta 124: Travel dwells into the darker cornerstones of life in far-flung places.
Far from cheery anecdotes and requisite tales of self-discovery and inspiration – at least not in the classic sense – the fiction, non-fiction and poetry within Granta 124: Travel delve into the darker cornerstones of life in far-flung places, the complexity of belonging to two places at once, and the divide between traditions, classes and cultures. Abduction, child trafficking, illegal international adoptions, displacement and the liberty of ending one’s life are just some of the weighty themes to be expounded upon – whether it’s amidst a gypsy shack on the banks of the Danube, the rabid dog-strewn streets of Bihar or the ‘convoluted system of passages, chambers and watercourses’ of Giant’s Hole.
The highly discomfiting ‘The Captain’ by Brooklyn-based writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap is an apt kick-off to the anthology. Quickly veering from tales of revelry to a highly absurd abduction, the discombobulated protagonist at the heart of Lapcharoensap’s surreal narrative brings to the fore spiritual confusion, the danger and inherent meaninglessness of travelling pursuits, and the social inequality in Thailand.
Social inequality is a construct explored again in famed Colombian novelist Hector Abad’s ‘A Rationalist in the Jungle’. As he journeys into Colombia’s most remote indigenous territories, Abad delves into the contradictory nature of the Colombian Amazon region – both obstructed from modernity and protected from the penetration of Western values by their local government’s corruption, guerrillas and drug trafficking. In a highlight of the essay, a conversation between Abad and ethnologist Martin von Hildebrand underscores the arrogance of arguments to westernise indigenous communities.
He told me that if they constructed an aqueduct in Western way, as I proposed, with pipes carrying safe drinking water to all the houses, and if they installed a power plant to generate electricity, the town would grow even more, and would become unsustainable in this place; increasing the density of the population here would achieve only one thing and that was more conflict over food.
In ‘Nuestra Señora de la Asunción’, Swedish writer Lina Wolff’s work is translated into English for the first time. Wolff draws upon her own experience – living in Spain with little command of the language and a new-born – to sketch a dark and stifling portrait of a Swedish woman struggling to juggle the responsibilities of being a new mother with the unsettling adjustment to life in Madrid. Wolff’s protagonist is both the focal point of the story and an outsider, as her impassive observations reveals a Spanish culture rooted in superstition and at odds with its influx of immigrants. The Madrid of Wolff’s mediations is both dark and hot, and provides a suitably murky setting to the protagonist’s jumbled thoughts.
Prolific Tweeter Teju Cole’s highly evocative and vibrant essay ‘Water Has No Enemy’ that closes the journal is a stand-out, with a cast of fleeting characters interlacing Cole’s ruminations. In his trademark lyrical prose, Cole reflects on the danger inherent in Lagos and the complex relationship he shares with it, as someone who is from there but no longer lives there.
The city is a sea that can swallow you at any time, a monster that can lash out without warning, a hell of variables and uncertainties.
This feeling of being an outsider within one’s own city is found again in Haruki Murakami’s meandering account of his walks in Kobe. Jarred by the damage wrought by the massive Hanshin earthquake when he visits his hometown, Murakami yearns for a sense of connection between the place he grew up in and the person he in now.
I feel a deep sense of loss at this fact, as if the axis of my memories is faintly, but audibly, creaking within me. It’s a physical sensation.
The other highlights within the anthology include Miroslav Penkov’s deeply disturbing and engrossing fictional piece ‘Blood Money’ about a Bulgarian journalist intent on getting his big scoop even if it means deceiving a Romani family and their pregnant young daughter, Pulitzer Prize-winner Siddharta Mukherjee’s fictional account of a man on the brink of death but the cusp of euthanasia, and award-winning reporter Sonia Faleiro’s journey to Bihar as she aims to uncover a trail of child trafficking. In amongst the fiction and essays is the delightful poem ‘Geese’ by Ellen Bryant Voigt and artist Steffi Klentz’s unnerving mosaic of sea-damaged photographs of travellers, explorers and seaman lost at sea.
Though the corpus fails to captivate in various places – David Searcy’s ‘The Hudson River School’ is particularly humdrum – Granta 124: Travel transports, immerses and deposits readers feeling as though they’ve learned something important.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Granta 124: Travel
The Magazine of New Writing
Editor: John Freeman
Rattawut Lapchaoensap The Captain
Siddhartha Mukherjee The Perfect Last Day of Mr Sengupta
Dave Eggers The Man at the River
A Yi Barrenland
Miroslav Penkov Blood Money
Teju Cole Water has no Enemy
David Searcy The Hudson River School
Héctor Abad A Rationalist in the Jungle
Sonia Falerio The Best Hotel
Robert Macfarlane Underland
Charles Simic Eternities
Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch String Theory
Ellen Bryan Voight Geese
Rachael Boast Compass Plant
Paperback: 250 pages
Allen & Unwin
Main Image: Image by Catherine Anyango for The Man Up River by Dave Edgars featured in Granta124: Travel