There He Is Again! It’s VS Naipaul!

Last weekend I invited an old friend and his fiance to have lunch at my parents’ house. I’m still recovering from my colon cancer and they wanted to see me and hear about my health. Before eating, they both stood by my Dad’s library, a collection of nicely bound history books about antiquity, Europe, and the Middle East. I called my Dad over since I know he takes a lot of pride in his library. He showed off a bunch of his stuff, especially a few from his latest kick, Napoleon.

My Dad opened up a drawer to find one of his other Napoleon books. And then I recognized a name just to the right of the Napoleon book. “Hey! Dad! You have a VS Naipaul!” I later wondered if Dad had arranged the books by ascending egoism.

The book was Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, one of Naipaul’s most famous travelogues. Dad reads a lot, but he’s not really into either fiction or creative nonfiction. He likes history books and periodicals. How’d he wind up with a VS Naipaul?

Apparently, his best friend, who died about six years ago in a car accident, gave it to him right when it came out. His friend’s name was Manolo, a man he’d known since he was in Cuba – Manolo was from Cienfuegos I believe – and I am named after him. My name is my Dad’s name, Francisco Izaguirre, with Manolo jammed in between it, then translated to English. Frank Manuel Izaguirre. I thought it was really cool that Manolo had given him this book.

See I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Theroux lately, choo-chooing my way across the planet as I familiarized myself with one of travel writing’s most beloved and yet unlovable heroes. The whole time I’ve been thinking how the next author I dive into must be the other half of the epic literary friendship. It’ll be good for my own writing, and I’m eager to get my own taste of Naipaul’s legendary crankiness. I think I’ll find him quite endearing.

I also recently stumbled upon an article from The Guardian about the two men. Apparently, they’ve made up; they bumped into each other at a literary conference and decided not to be so angry anymore. I made the piece’s accompanying picture, with the two old buddies shaking hands and each emotionally looking at the other, my laptop background.

So by popping up in my Dad’s book drawer to the right of Napoleon, the man who’s been loitering on the periperhy of my attention has finally succeeded in grabbing it. OK, OK, Mr. Naipaul. I’ll read your books.

The next day I took Among the Believers out back with me to my Mother’s garden, put on some shades, and read in the sun. The book chronicles his travels through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, four countries I’d like to know more about. It starts in Iran. I was excited. Mom was working in the side yard, and suddenly came around back and saw me.

“Well if it isn’t the Prince of Persia,” she said.

To which I responded, “I’m there right now!”

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A Nice Exchange with Eva Holland

One of my favorite sites is World Hum, a page dedicated to publishing all kinds of insightful and interesting stories, profiles,  links, and lists about travel and travel writing. Possibly my favorite thing about the site is that I’m able to easily post contrarian viewpoints on the nature of travel writing and be in dialogue with some of the industry’s top voices. Open forums make that possible.

Recently, Eva Holland, the senior editor, posted an excerpt taken from a recent Harper’s piece written by Robert MacFarlane which she really liked.

Here’s the excerpt in question:

He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.

Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions”—particularly “Rings Of Saturn”—that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.

I disagree with the implications of what MacFarlane’s saying, and I said as much in the forum. In my reading, MarFarlane’s postulating that because essentially every destination had already been written about in Chatwin’s day, Chatwin shifted the dynamic by creating new forms and making that the emphasis of the genre.

What bothers me about this is that people and places aren’t static, so it’s not like every place on earth had or has been written about. Once even a little time has passed, the destination will be different, especially in our rapidly changing world, which means that it is in effect a new place and worth writing about for that reason alone. New forms can be great, but I don’t believe they’re inherently necessary because the fact that people and places are always changing means that there’s always new places to write about.

In fact, I believe an emphasis on constantly creating new forms puts travel writing on a dangerous uphill trajectory, where it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with these new forms. The result may be a race to gimmickry. Check out the rest of the conversation and Eva Holland’s response here.