His career as a travel writer began with four books, all set in West Asia — Damascus, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. From there, he moved to the USSR ( Where Nights are Longest) and then to a China that was just opening its doors to the world ( Behind the Wall). The Lost Heart of Asia saw him wander through the newer states of Central Asia, while In Siberia was an engagement with Russia after the fall of Communism. In all these works, his narrative is marked by sensitivity to the changing political topography and a constant undercurrent of empathy. Though best known for his travel books, the 74-year-old Thubron also has several best-selling novels to his credit as well as literary awards including the Hawthorne Prize and the Prix Bouvier. Excerpts from an e-mail interview:
The world is so well travelled today, so accessible to everyone, so easily Googled. Does old-fashioned travel writing of your kind, of any kind, have a future?
Yes, I think that travel writing as physical exploration will seem more and more a thing of the past. But this is still far away. There are whole areas of the world still virtually inaccessible: and just as one region opens up, another closes. In the 1970s I made a journey all but impossible today: through Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and north Pakistan; but at that period China and the Soviet Union were virtually off limits. So just as one door opens, another slams shut. Writers — from Joseph Conrad to Claude Levi-Strauss — have been predicting the death of the travel book (and even of travel itself) for at least a century, for precisely the reasons suggested by the advent of the Internet: the apparent greater accessibility of the world. Yet travel writing is still with us, as strong as ever.
Watching somewhere on a screen is no substitute for being there. Each generation conceives the world in a different way, and needs to reinterpret it. Not only is the world out there changing, the sensibilities and priorities of every new generation are changing too. So the world needs constant reinterpretation. (A rich seam for future travel writers to mine will be the exposure of the intrinsic nature of a country that lies beneath its superficial Westernisation.) In sum, I think the exploration of ‘abroad’ will always be with us. There is a sense of being ‘abroad’ as soon as we leave our doorsteps.
Mirror to Damascus is so thickly layered with Classical and Biblical references that the present-day Lebanon you were travelling in is almost obscured by the past. Would it be fair to say that the book is more history than travel writing strictly? Is this a prose device for you?
Not a conscious device. But at the time of my writing those books — half a century ago — I was filled with fascination for the rich past of Syria and Lebanon’s culture. Now, of course, a writer (myself included) would be far more conscious of a tragic contemporary history. Ironically, my early travel books seem to be part of history now, reflecting a more benign era.
You have spoken of Britain’s boarding school tradition being responsible for the rich travel writing that emerged. Would not Colonialism and the travelling it engendered, the ease of access and power it gave, be a more correct explanation?
I think the two are entwined. The prevalence of the British boarding school was itself in part the outcome of empire. My own generation of travel writers (Raban, Chatwin, O’Hanlon et al) was born into a largely post-colonial age, but the middle-class boarding school experience was common to us all. Both it, and (I guess) the legacy of empire, can give a certain kind of self-confidence (and, at worst, arrogance), together with a sort of emotional toughness.
Your descriptive prose would appear to have become progressively less ornate, less intense over books. Was this conscious on your part?
Not a conscious decision, no. I think this happens with many writers. The imagination becomes more disciplined, the critical faculties increase. There are different gains and losses here. Something of the charm of an early book may never be recaptured. In my first books I was more conscious of striving to find ‘my’ voice, more conscious of style. Later this became automatic, and I thought more about what I was describing, less about how I would describe it.
In To the Last City, the protagonist, a journalist, rejects the idea of being able to describe Peru. Words fail him, the place overpowers him. Have you experienced this? Also, with his Englishness and his notebooks, is Robert part- autobiographical?
I have not personally experienced the same extremes of frustration that I attribute to Robert. But I understand them all too well, since I feel that places — and everything else — eventually elude capture by words (at least by mine) — not only something’s beauty, but its very nature. Robert is a kind of self-criticism, yes. His pedantic notebooks are a reflection on myself.
Has India ever figured on your writing radar?
I travelled a good deal in India in the 1970s. I loved its physical beauty and historical and religious resonances. So it is a little strange — even to myself — that I never tried to write about it. Instead I was drawn to more austere countries that offered more obvious political challenge (the hostile Soviet Union, the half-closed China). This may have arisen from a need to understand the inherited enemy, to comfort myself by humanising.
What next? Is there more travel, more books in you yet?
Yes, I think and hope so. I’m engaged in writing another novel at the moment: a more ambitious fiction than I usually attempt. At my age it’s hard to conceive starting something that is not crucially important (at least to myself). After that, I’m hoping to write another travel book: perhaps on the Amur, the long border between China and Russia in the east. But of course I may be dead by then!