The author analyzes three books on escapism and the various ways in which it is represented in them. He focuses on Alex Garland’s backpacker cult novel 'The Beach' and William Sutcliffe’s satire of the gap-year traveler 'Are You Experienced?' as well as Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book 'Into the Wild'.The first part of the analysis deals with the influence of literary genres like the Bildungsroman and travel literature. Unreliable narration as a narrative strategy is taken into consideration, as well as the colonial subtext of 'The Beach' and 'Are You Experienced?'. In 'Into the Wild' nature writing and road narratives are an integral part of the narrative.The second part deals with cultural aspects such as questions of authenticity that are raised during the narratives, the role of drugs as a means of escape, and also the problematic relationship between travelers and tourists. Finally, the author compares two film adaptations, Danny Boyle’s 'The Beach' (2000) and Sean Penn’s 'Into the Wild' (2007), with their corresponding literary source texts.
Chapter 1.2.1, Are You Experienced? – India:
According to Roldan-Santiago, the main objective of travel writing has always been ‘…the faithful portrayal of the ‘other’, that is, the third world [or] marginal groups like ethnic and racial minorities…’ These portrayals, however, were in part also always fictional, particularly because Western travel writings are generally ‘geared to notions of colonial narratives’ and therefore misrepresent or distort the places they narrate about. In this context, Dissayanake and Wickramagamage have utilized the term of the ‘colonial gaze’, that is, a decidedly condescending manner in which travel writers observed far away countries and their inhabitants. This patronizing attitude, which deems a society as inferior and ‘backwards’ in terms of cultural, social or historical achievements, is also employed in Garland’s and Sutcliffe’s novels where the protagonists treat their respective foreign country with a mixture of superiority and suspicion. The authors therefore deliberately point out the colonial past of their narratives as part of contemporary English travel fiction, and also ist subgenre, the ‘backpacker fiction’. The roots for this kind of colonial postmodern traveler are to be found in European economic and political expansion since around 1750. The eighteenth century saw Britain’s rise to global power. After multiple successful wars against France and the Netherlands, vast colonies were created in Canada, Australasia, the West Indian islands, West Africa and India. As a result, larger and larger numbers of missionaries, explorers and travelers ventured into these parts to report upon them. As Pratt argues, ‘travel writing made imperial expansion meaningful and desirable to the citizenries of the imperial countries’ while it gave ‘European reading publics a sense of ownership, entitlement and familiarity with respect to the distant parts of the world that were being explored, invaded, invested in and colonized.’ Helen Carr states that it was particularly in the heyday of the British Empire, the time period between 1880 and 1940, when travel writing not only condoned but outright supported the nation’s imperialist expansion. The amount of travel writing that has come out since (and before that period) is, of course, abundant. What follows is therefore only a small selection that is supposed to illustrate that these distinctive elements of the colonial and the cultural angst have ever been present in travel writing of the period and, as a subtext, still persist in the British novels presented here.
Notable for travel writing about India is, to begin with, Rudyard Kipling’s Letters of Marque (1887-1888), a series of travel sketches that were initially published in the all-Indian newspaper Pioneer, and later collected together in the first volume of From Sea to Sea. Ist narrative loosely revolves around the observations and adventures of an ‘Englishman’ (Kipling’s alter-ego) on the road, who communicates with a variety of people he encounters along the way, like residents, carriage drivers, salesman, stable-boys and tourists. There are clear parallels to the narrative of Sutcliffe. Letters of Marque also begins with an English traveler’s desire to travel as a form of escape from a ‘stale and claustrophobic’ lifestyle. He is somebody who ‘knows’ India and is sensitive towards ist culture, whereas other Englishmen are ‘Globe Trotters’ who pretend to know the places they travel to but are, in fact, merely experts on banalities like hotels and food. Tellingly though, the ‘Englishman’ has a phobia of ‘native bodies’ and hence avoids contact with them since he fears ‘an invasion of private space and a deracination of self’. Because Kipling’s narratives are generally regarded as discourses on colonialism in which India is a place of alterity and potential threat that challenges colonial authorities and tourists alike, cultural angst is often a part of these narratives. As Jo Collins states
For Kipling […] India, as a space and people to be ruled, must be seen as ‘other’, yet the uncanny threat which may lurk within this alterity must be surpressed in order for imperial rule to continue securely. However, when the uncanny threat becomes literalised the colonizer experiences terror; not only individually, but also where alterity threatens to undermine the colonial project itself.
Kipling’s short story The City of Dreadful Night, whose title is derived from a poem by James Thomson, has a similar tone, as it is a descent into the underworld of Calcutta as a symbol of menace. The capital city of India was a symbol for travel writers because it was the epitome of the prosperity of British rule, but at the same time symbolized the anxieties of the colonizer; fear of the people, the place, of contamination and disease. The ‘terror’ towards the ‘uncanny’ is apparently deeply embedded within the colonial traveler’s psyche, something that Sutcliffe picks up on when Dave, upon arriving in India, observes the inhabitants:
It wasn’t that they looked physically different, or even that they were wearing weird clothes. There was something else I couldn’t put my finger on that looked completely alien. Something in the way they moved, and in their facial expressions. Whatever it was, it scared the shit out of me. (AYE, 10)
In the twentieth century then, J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journey (1932) is noteworthy, because it also heavily satirizes the British in India. Ackerley's narration is a memoir of his brief engagement as secretary to an Indian Maharaja in the city of Chhatarpur. Less arch in tone, but nonetheless an authority in British travel writing about India is E.M. Forster with A Passage to India (1924) and The Hill of Devi (1953). Both are based on Forster’s experiences in India.
In the early 1960’s, posttourism travel writing emerges, with an emphasis on inscrutability, paradox and interrelationships. This is particularly articulated in the travel writings of V.S Naipaul, whose multinationality (he was born in Trinidad but grew up in England) gives him a distinct outsider perspective. His first impressions of India were recorded in the non-fictional An Area of Darkness (1964), where the subcontinent is ‘a land of abject poverty, dirt, and defacation.’ Blanton furthermore observes that Naipaul finds in India an ‘inherent disorder of a postcolonial society that has been both improved and irreparably damaged by the years of Western dominance.’ The crux of Naipaul’s dilemma as he travels to places like India, Africa, or the Middle-East is, according to Blanton, the awareness that ‘there is no going back to the realm of myth and magic in which tradition is rooted, yet the shoddiness of what passes for progress in these places angers and saddens him.’ The author’s nostalgia is also noticed by Nixon who states that Naipaul’s ‘…notion of the ‘real’ India is overdetermined by his lifelong mythologizing of it; he requires of this other, personally abstracted country that it complete his identity, allowing him to become (to use a term he favors) a ‘whole man.’’
This nostalgic attitude is not a postmodern phenomenon. It is a result of the intersection between the ‘real’ and the imagined India, in which the ‘colonizing imagination’ always looks into the past where the ‘true’ India of the ‘Golden Age’ can be found. As Singh states, this contradiction of first colonizing a place and then lamenting ist bygone era as part of a nostalgic projection, already emerged in the eighteenth century, when the ‘classical past’ was contrasted with contemporary ‘images of disarray and decadence’. He goes on to say that ‘when India gained independence in 1947, a centralized, class-based nation state was buttressed by an idealist version of India’s glorious past wherein lay the universal ‘essence’ of Indianness.’ A sort of nostalgic evocation of the past occurs in Are You Experienced? As well. Having seen mostly dirt and poverty, Dave suddenly meets an ‘oldish man’ (AYE, 169) by whom he is invited into his house. Upon entering, Dave is surprised ‘how much it looked like an English one: TV set in the corner, a few chairs, a rug, pictures on the wall. Everything seemed pretty recognizable, really.’ (AYE, 170). The host, who introduces himself by the name of Charles A. Tripathi junior, turns out to be a descendant of British Christian missionaries. His strong English vernacular combined with an overly polite conduct evoke images of the archetypical English ‘gentleman’ and, at the same time, indirectly hint at pre-independent India as a ‘better time’:
‘Oh, most assuredly. Johnny, Peter and Freddie were the names of my three closest chums.
Of course, they all departed after 1947.’
‘All of them?’
‘Partition, old chap. A lot of good eggs decamped pretty sharpish.’
‘That’s terrible.And…er, why did you have so many English friends?’
‘British, old boy. One musn’t forget our Caledonian compatriots. Freddie was a Scot, you see.’
The English gentleman figure is, in fact, a self-ironic figure through which nostalgia is filtered in contemporary – especially British – travel writing. As Holland and Huggan remark:
Hopelessly behind the times, perversely guarding a code of honorable conduct long since superseded, the latter-day English gentleman-explorer becomes the figure for a genre itself outmoded, a genre of adventure writing that simultaneously laments and celebrates ist own imagined obsolescence.
Sutcliffe here seems to bring together not only two entirely different generations, but different types of English travelers at that. Dave as a representative of the postmodern English backpacker is juxtaposed with the old man as a remnant of British India. Consequently, their conversation is marked by a strong sense of anachronism. Dave’s host clings very much to nostalgia, stating things like ‘English schooling is still the best in the world, I am pleased to see.’ (AYE, 172) and, convinced to see in Dave a reflection of himself, ‘You have the mark of a gentleman stamped all over you.’ (AYE, 172). Dave on the other hand shows a distinct lack of common knowledge about his own country (for example, upon asked whether he is Christian and a member of the C of E, he does not know that the latter stands for Church of England) as well as ignorance. Finally departing, his conclusion of the meeting is telling:
Although we hadn’t really managed much of a conversation, and I’d been mostly bored out of my skull, I felt that the visit marked a significant and positive watershed. I had actually gone inside an Indian house. Gone inside, sat down and talked to a real Indian person […]. Previously, I’d never been able to get beyond the odd glance through a window or door, but now I’d actually broken through. I had seen the real India. I had discovered how people lived. (AYE, 172)
Ironically, Dave’s ‘real’ India, which he prides himself on having found, is very much like his native soil. He is not aware what kind of person he just met, but is nonetheless convinced that he talked to a ‘real Indian person.’ His own obliviousness towards the meaning of this experience is a sign of his unreliable character. It is furthermore telling that Dave feels at home and comfortable in India, only when, of all people, he is in the presence of a man who represents the missionary colonial roots. Sutcliffe here shows that the postmodern English traveler is – perhaps often unconsciously – merely a rehash of the modern one and an extension of the old colonial structures. He travels abroad to meet the ‘other’ and experience exoticness, but when confronted with otherness, he flees into the familiar. Another utterance of Dave confirms this. While traveling to Kerala on train together with two British girls, he listens to a Pink Floyd CD. He states that ‘if you had seen what I saw, you would know that the Indian countryside was designed with a Pink Floyd soundtrack in mind’ (AYE, 152). Dave is able to appreciate the country and ist otherness only when filtered through western culture and conceptions, that is, his ‘colonial gaze’. The mere thought of traveling on his own frightens him (AYE, 122) because he would be forced to expose himself to the alterity of an unknown space. Accordingly, when he tries to communicate with others, it is always with other travelers or, as seen above, with former colonial ones. A real contact is evaded, for as he states: ‘I dunno – it’s as if the best bits – the bits that feel most like India – are the places where you don’t have to talk to any Indians’ (AYE, 94).
Hannes Krehan was born in 1984 in Rostock. After graduating from the University of Rostock with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish, he transferred to the University of Jena, where he took up a Master Program in English. During his studies, he focused on American Literature, developing a particular interest in the American classics like Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, but also in the modern works on different youth subcultures by authors like Irvine Welsh, Douglas Coupland and Alex Garland.
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- Artikel-Nr.: SW9783954896851
- Artikelnummer SW9783954896851
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- Verlag Anchor Academic Publishing
- Seitenzahl 92
- Veröffentlichung 01.02.2014
- ISBN 9783954896851