Some writer-travellers – V.S. Naipaul, for instance – like to project themselves as illusionless figures, immune to prettifying, exoticising urges. Colin Thubron isn’t shy about not liking places: he often endures bouts of melancholy on his journeys and writes about the way ‘a little architectural charm, or a trick of the light, could turn other people’s poverty to a bearable snapshot’. But an illusionless posture isn’t his style. ‘Like a lot of English travel writers,’ he once said, ‘I began with a romantic idea about travel’, and the temperament that got him going in the first place – his ‘rather naive love of the exotic and mysterious’, of ‘the strange and the beautiful’ – plays a large role in his depictions of himself on the page. His books turn on the encounter between the energetic yet dreamy narrator, moving ‘in a boyish euphoria of self-sufficiency’, as he puts it in Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, and the sometimes deflating realities he finds. Once these have made him feel grizzled and disabused he’ll have a moment of human contact or a brush with the beautiful, but either way he needs moods and preconceptions in place to achieve the desired effect, namely ‘a kind of pulling away of illusions both for myself and perhaps in the reader’.
LRB 14 July 2011 | PDF Download