Navtej Sarna

Second Thoughts - Fact, fiction and the travel urge

Dreams are still not taxable so here's one more: having bumped around the world enough, and not much in India, I take a deep red jeep, all fitted out and well-stocked, and drive for six months, all the way up from the brittle emptiness of Ladakh through the crowded heartland, down the Carnatic coast and up the Coromandel, across the little-explored North-east, through snow, heat, dust and monsoon downpour. Eating roadside, sleeping under the stars, talking to strangers, keeping furious notes. And for company, the highly intelligent best friend, Dara, my German shepherd. That's not an original idea of course; it's been done before. In 1960, an ailing, 58-year old John Steinbeck, waning as a novelist, set out for an 11-week trip across America in an outfitted pick-up truck with his French poodle Charley. The result was the highly acclaimed classic of American travel writing, Travels with Charley.

Incurable urge

Steinbeck confesses to an incurable travel urge. “The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage…..once a bum always a bum.” And so he let himself ease off into the great American night in a rough counter-clockwise loop that takes him and Charley up to Maine, then across the northern states to the Pacific coast, down to California and then back along the southern route. The book does not record an exact diary; instead, it depicts the writer's thoughts and musings as he drives, interwoven with local descriptions of landscape, speech and people. Every once in a while there is an interaction with a stranger — a farmer in north Michigan, a Shakespearean actor in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota, a virulent racist in Louisiana. Interspersed among the conversations and descriptions are the writer's extended views on subjects as diverse as racial segregation, the giant Californian redwoods and all things Texan (“Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession.”) There are places, says Steinbeck, “where fable, myth, preconception, love, longing, or prejudice step in and so distort a cool, clear appraisal that a kind of high-colored magical confusion takes permanent hold. Greece is such an area, and those parts of England where King Arthur walked….And surely Texas is such a place.” Charley and his antics, his French-gentleman breeding which makes him believe that “humans are nuts”, his prostatitis and his hilarious encounter with a vet nursing a hangover get ample play in the journey and its touching to see Steinbeck conducting conversations with the dog on matters such as the search for roots. (“He listened but he didn't reply.”) Charley fortunately “doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself.”

Particularly enchanting is the wisdom about travel and travel writing that is strewn casually about. Each journey, Steinbeck believes, is like a person; with an individuality and temperament that is impossible to control and bind down with schedules and reservations. “We do not take a trip,” he says “a trip takes us.” Many trips continue in the mind long after movement in space and time has ceased; others leave us “without warning, or good-by or kiss my foot” while we are still stranded far from home. Steinbeck's trip ended for him while he was still in Virginia; from then on the “road became a stone ribbon, the hills obstructions, the trees green blurs, the people simply moving figures with heads but no faces.” Steinbeck confesses he kept few notes about his journey and is surprised to find some scribblings bound on a ketchup bottle with a rubber band. The large macrocosm of the land is the macrocosm of himself; to anybody else it would be different. External reality is not so external; it depends on whose eye surveys it. Each person brings home a different city, a different journey, a different truth. “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

Drastic discrepancies

And now, a full 50 years later, along comes a journalist named Bill Steigerwald to spoil the party. A Steinbeck fan, he set out to commemorate the journey by falling the Nobel laureate's wheel tracks and write a book on how America has changed. Instead, he ended up finding drastic discrepancies in Steinbeck's account. Using biographies of Steinbeck, letters that he wrote from the road, newspaper articles and the first draft of the book, he contends that Steinbeck was not predominantly alone during the journey but was joined by his wife, that he did not sleep in the camper under the stars too often but in motels and even luxury hotels and that several of the encounters he writes about, including the charming one with the thespian, actually never happened. And now the readers and scholars are divided between those who feel let down by their literary hero for palming off fiction as non-fiction and those who say that it really doesn't matter that much; after all, all non-fiction contains some fiction (remember Chatwin?) and the book does remain a quirky, entertaining classic. As Steigerwald himself writes: “It doesn't matter if it's not the true or full or honest story of Steinbeck's quixotic road trip. It was never meant to be. It's a metaphor, a work of art, not a AAA travelogue. Steinbeck himself insisted in “ Charley” — a little defensively — that he wasn't trying to write a travelogue or do real journalism. And he points out more than once that his trip was subjective and uniquely his, and so was its retelling.”

And I'll keep that all in mind when I recount what Dara and I talked about. No slight to poodles, but a German shepherd might even reply.



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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 5:17:01 AM |

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