If you expect travel to be a vehicle for the psyche and you expect travel writers to deliver a satisfying story about growing, changing and knowing themselves better (via foreign space and human encounters), then steer a clear path around both Jenny Diski and Robyn Davidson, both of whom I read because of a trip to Australia. I was in need of a book for the long plane journey from Joburg to Sydney and borrowed Diski’s Stranger on a Train from friend Gillian and then having finished it within days of arrival needed another so borrowed Davidson’s Tracks from brother-in-law Tony (choosing to start here on my reading tour of this new place).
I hadn’t intended to think of the two together but Davidson’s book of crossing the outback with camels from 1980 and Diski’s 2002 accounts of a boat journey plus two train journeys, came together in my head in surprising ways. (I had heard of Davidson’s 1977 adventure from Alice to Perth (via Uluru) at the time and who knew they would choose 2013 to make it into a movie with Mia Wasikowska as Davidson.)
Both books are nicely surprising in multiple ways; let me enumerate:
- Firstly they’re not really about the journey which the blurb describes in an attempt to package neatly what’s coming between the covers. At first this hit me a little from the side, but faint annoyance (particularly when Diski’s book started with a journey on a freighter across the Atlantic) became deep interest, and then I was really pleased in both cases that I wasn’t getting what the publishing marketeers thought I should be getting.
- Then maybe they’re not about journeys at all: Diski’s book might actually be about being a smoker in an increasingly smoking-hostile world. Her addiction not just to tubes of nicotine but the up-yours attitude and dirty bolt-holes of smokers makes completely riveting reading (and I’m a non-smoker impervious to smokers’ needs and discomforts). Davidson’s book might be about her love affair with camels and her need to spend extended time working this out with these animals in terrain that is big, challenging and unsafe — again this fixation and intensity is the rivet that holds my attention to this book.
- As I said in the first paragraph (and to my surprise I do/did hold to this view) if journeying is about the psyche finding a vehicle for growth, then these journeys are deeply frustrating for the expectant reader. Both physical adventures are accomplished (but neither woman cares much that she actually did them to some sort of completion) and so there is closure of narrative but frustration of expectation of what the psychic journey should achieve. Diski travels vast seas and spaces in order to stay still inside a moving carriage and in order not really to encounter any people (in this case Americans). The less actual change in scenery there is the better she likes it. Donaldson begins without clarity of what had driven this extraordinary set of choices (to go to Alice, find camel trainers, work with these horrible men, get her own camels and cross the Northern Territory and Western Australia) and ends without us any the wiser, there is just simply no revelation.
- Then there is the factor that neither woman is nice. And the journeys they undertake don’t make them nicer. They don’t improve psychically at all. And their shamelessness about this is rather refreshing. Neither has a hope that the journey will deliver knowledge and wisdom and neither pander to their readers’ desires for transformation of the self. Neither Diski nor Davidson is under any illusion that their encounters with the strangers along the way will make them better, more flexible people. In fact any other characters who appear have almost nothing to do with the trajectory of the travel which seems ultimately to be about being one’s self only in a different space.
This cantankerousness, this irascibility is the other rivet for these books. A persistent commitment to the self one is (however damaged, lopsided, unsettled, incomplete) is what both these women are really good at and what they write so well, and that is the delightful surprise of both books: that they have the courage and honesty to be these people without apology and to write themselves so very well that they sustain attention despite never answering the mystery of why they would even bother to board a train, a boat or a camel.