studies in travel writing

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'Everyone here dreams of the day we can sing out of our windows in despair'

Watching Ma Jian's recent protest at the London Book Fair, I was reminded of his fine travelogue Red Dust, which came out in 2001.

Photo by Shawn Clover

Winner of the 2002 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, it was not the first book about China to have scooped the prize. Previous winners included Stanley Stewart's Frontiers of Heaven, Colin Thubron's Behind the Wall and Vikram Seth's From Heaven Lake.

What makes Red Dust different is that its author is from China. The book begins by charting his dissatisfaction with life in Beijing as a photographer for a trade union propaganda unit. The authorities are increasingly concerned about his apparent lack of commitment and his associations with bohemians and dissidents don't help. He quits his job and decides to leave the city.

Ma Jian was at an obvious linguistic advantage over the foreign authors of travel accounts and he had already travelled widely in the country as a party journalist on official business. On the other hand, his itinerary takes him to many places that are new to him and he does not present himself to the reader as an insider who can - at last - reveal the 'real' China. In fact his itinerary is - perhaps surprisingly - conventionally touristic, taking in the Gorge of a Thousand Buddhas, the Mogao caves, the sights of Xi'an, the Dazu rock sculptures and so on.

But alongside this narrative is a more personal quest, and one which echoes the peregrinations of the beat poets in the United States in the 1940s and 50s. He sets off clutching his copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and ends the book heading towards Everest in search of the lost soul of Tibetan Buddhism. Like the beats he must earn money as he goes in whatever way he can - cutting hair, drawing cartoons, dog-sitting, furniture-making. And he is usually only one step ahead of the police as his journey depends on forged documents and assumed identities. At any moment he could be arrested and forced to return to Beijing.

But while there is a certain self-serving heroism here in dodging the obstacles to travel, he never forgets how privileged he is in being able even to make the attempt. He constantly reminds us that the freedom to change jobs or move away is severely restricted for most of the people he meets. His hosts repeatedly confide in him their frustrated desires to travel beyond the village or town where they were born, or even to express themselves openly in the places they live.

It is at moments like these that the spotlight shines on the privilege of the reader too. In Xi'an he stays with a couple who have completed a translation of the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ma Jian picks up the book and alights on a passage from Howl:
'Listen to this,' I say. 'They "sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of / the subway window, jumped in the filthy Pas- / saic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, / danced on broken wineglasses barefoot..." It reminds me of a night in Beijing when our group of poets and painters took some empty beer bottles outside and smashed them into a metal rubbish bin. We hurled with all our strength. It was the loudest noise I had ever made. But Ginsberg can sing out of his window in despair, he can cry all over the street. That sounds like heaven to me. He implies his country is not fit for humans to live in. Well, he should live in China for a month, then see what he thinks. Everyone here dreams of the day we can sing out of our windows in despair'
Ultimately the strain of living a vagrant life proves too much. 'I am sick of travelling,' he writes. 'I need to hold onto something familiar, even if it just a tea cup.' And he heads for home.
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Thu 3 May 2012 13:54 GMT+0100


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