SHELF HELP Books

To travel and to report

Why do we feel compelled to travel out of our comfort zones, and indeed away from the comfortable, touristy path? Why do we, at a remove, hunger for the traveller’s stories? And really, what is it about the traveller’s wisdom that draws us to the visitor in our midst, to ask her what she sees when she observes our environs, so that somehow our perspective on our immediate surroundings is more complete, or perhaps more realistically and necessarily unsettling?

These questions will perhaps never be fully answered to our complete satisfaction, but Andrew Solomon provides more to chew over in his new book that most other travel books do. Author of the masterly The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression, he brings together a lifetime of travels in Far and Away: Reporting From the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years. This is previously published work in journals, newspapers, and his own books, but many articles are presented in a longer form. Together, they don’t just provide profiles of diverse lands, they illuminate what it is to be human.

“My lifelong fascination with resilience has often propelled me to places in the throes of transformation,” he explains in the long introduction which is a stirring manifesto for the thoughtful traveller. So whether it be an inquiry into the art scene in Moscow in the last years of the Soviet Union, or putting together a feast in Kabul in the early days after the fall of the Taliban, or interviews with a Cambodian woman who’s put together a drill to get her compatriots out of depression after being the lucky ones to come out of Khmer Rouge rule alive, he breaks down the barrier between observer (whether it’s him as a writer, or his reader) and observed just that bit, to yield a playbook of survival tactics.

Travel is also an exercise in working out your coordinates. “Travel makes you modest,” writes Solomon. “…Familiar landscapes cushion you from self-knowledge because the border between who you are and where you are is porous. But in a strange place, you become more fully evident: who you truly are is what persists at home and abroad.” But then, as he himself confesses, the trouble with this heightened self-awareness as a traveller is that you can never enjoy “vacations without reporting”.

mini.kapoor@thehindu.co.in

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