The Journeyman`s Tall Tale
Nilanjana S Roy
In the 5th century BC, Aelianus Claudius fulminated at length upon the "lies" of his fellow writer, Herodotus. Aelianus went so far to suggest that the man considered the first historian and travel journalist of the West would be denied a place on the Island of the Blessed.
Aelianus Claudius would have been baffled by the life of the modern-day travel writer, though he would have answered emphatically in the affirmative to Thomas Kohnstamm's Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?
Kohnstamm made the news after he made a flippant comment about how he wrote a Lonely Planet guide about Colombia without actually going there. He made other revelations about the guidebook writing business that, one suspects, had Lonely Planet and other guidebook publishers consider committing either ritual hara-kiri or justifiable homicide.
Kohnstamm clarified later that he had not been hired to write the actual travel portions of the Colombia guidebook, but to write the "desk" sections on the history of the country. He also clarified that not all the information he presented the Lonely Planet publishers came from "the chick" he was dating, "an intern in the Colombian consulate".
As the media debated the story back and forth, calling Kohnstamm a "fraud" or a whistleblower, depending on which version you read, travel writers the world over must have raised a collective, sardonic eyebrow and got back to work.
The issues that Kohnstamm raises poor pay, insufficient time, too much territory to cover have plagued the travel writing industry ever since the Egyptians, Arabs and Chinese sent off emissaries to see what the rest of the world was like. Contemporary guidebook publishers, conversely, struggle with the 'Eco's map' dilemma.
In one of his beguiling essays, Eco asked how one might create an accurate map of the world. The only way would be to create a map that was of the same scale as the world, where every change was chronicled by an army of mapmakers as it happened. Of course, every change the mapmakers made would have to be recorded by another set of mapmakers, and so on. Even the most generous guidebook creator cannot hope to create a perfect, up-to-date guidebook; by the time the book comes out, the world it describes has changed.
Throughout history, then, travel writing has been perhaps the most strongly fictional branch of non-fiction writing. And travel writers deal with this broadly in three ways.
Writers like Xuanzang coax funding (valuables and letters of introduction from the king of Turfan, in his case) from a suitable patron, travel for as long as that funding will allow, and then seek other patrons. The need to make a living once the traveller returns (17 years after he set out for India, in Xuanzang's case) keeps him relatively honest. Xuanzang had a natural affinity for accuracy, and also knew that an accurate account would be more useful to scholars and patrons back home. That helped him write one of the most enduring chronicles of Asia.
Writers like Herodotus stick as far as possible to accuracy, but when they face differing descriptions of the same event, may pick the one most likely to please audiences back home. Herodotus was a good writer his work has stayed in print for 2,500 years, after all ? but not above settling for the most convenient story when he was tired, or just impatient to move on.
Writers like Sir John Mandeville, faced with the dullness of a foreign country or indeed, the unpleasantness of having to travel at all let their imaginations soar. No one knows who Sir John Mandeville was, whether he made up his name, his knighthood or indeed, most of his history. His book of travels, published in the 14th century, was a smash hit and was read by the likes of Christopher Columbus. He made up most of his "true" stories, with marvellous detail such as a description of cotton plants in India where the branches bore lambs instead of fruit.
Kohnstamm, like most contemporary travel writers, is a blend of all three types. The book he's just published is as honest and open as you would expect from Xuanzang. Some of his guidebook writing is in the main accurate, but might contain lapses, as with Herodotus. And presumably, there is also a little of the Mandeville about him, at least in a willingness to describe places he has never visited. Think what you like about his sense of ethics, but you must admit that he is a fine upholder of tradition.
The author is Chief Editor, Westland Ltd/ Tranquebar Press. This article was first published in Business Standard, India.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008