‘Some of the Names Have Been Changed’

People walking in park (only legs visible)

In the text, some of the names have been changed to protect identities (Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport)

Most of the names in the book have been changed (Roger Green, Destination Nowhere).

Minor Characters and Travel Writing

We’re all familiar with this disclaimer – or something similar – that appears at the front or back of certain works of non-fiction.

On the one hand, it is a way of reminding us that this indeed is a work of non-fiction. It would sound ludicrous in a novel, at least a highly imaginative one. ‘Harry Potter (not his real name)…’ It is saying: the people who appear in this book are not made up, they really have an independent existence. People who know them – friends, enemies – may well be reading this book.

On the other hand, by admitting that their names have been changed, the writer (or publisher) is already alluding to a process of fictionalization. And one which, we must assume, does not stop at names. In order to protect the privacy of an individual, it is likely one must adjust their place of residence or their job title, remove distinctive features of speech or appearance, and so on. A whole textual witness protection programme would seem to be required.

The practice of changing names is common in investigative journalism, where whistle-blowers need to be protected, or in certain kinds of confessional writing. In travel accounts, we come across it less often. For here, the first-person protagonist cuts a rather lonely figure. The minor characters who appear in the narrative are often very minor indeed, their purposes crudely instrumental. Even when the narrator explicitly engages them in conversation, the sense that they have life histories or powers of observation that would match the writer’s own is conspicuously lacking. The idea that other people might travel often seems particularly threatening.

One kind of travel narrative in which other people feature more strongly is the one in which the first-person protagonist remains stationary and focuses his or her attention on the comings and goings of everyone else. A genre that might be called travellee writing. Here, at last, perhaps, the minor characters may have a greater claim on our interest.

In this post I want to explore the the different ways transit-ing passengers, customers, guests – and their backstories – are brought to life on the basis of a very brief (and sometimes indirect) acquaintance, in three books of this type:

  • A Week at the Airport (2009) by Alain de Botton. A short book about a week he spent as writer in residence at Heathrow.
  • Destination Nowhere (2004) by Roger Green. A diary recording multiple visits to South Mimms motorway service station north of London over a year and a half.
  • L’Hôtel (1984) by Sophie Calle. Another diary, this one full of a housekeeper’s observations of rooms in a Venice hotel.

The first two of these (as I have indicated) employ such disclaimers. Sophie Calle’s book does not, but her text does redact the surnames of the hotel guests, which is a related practice.

I’m going to take one example from each book to indicate some of the ways in which minor characters are presented: the evidence on which their personality or history is – or is not – extrapolated; and the extent to which this involves some imaginative embellishment.

But, drawing on Alex Woloch’s richly suggestive study, The One Vs. the Many, I also want to insist that minor characters can’t really be understood on their own; their relationship with the protagonist is important.1 The protagonist needs minor characters in order to be, well, a convincing protagonist. How well they meet this need is an open question.

Alain De Botton

De Botton gives the people he meets quite detailed backstories. Sometimes these mini-biographies are explicitly hypothetical (where the intention seems to be simply to evoke a ‘type’ rather than accurately identify an individual). Occasionally the stories are more developed and idiosyncratic, suggesting that they derive from an actual conversation with the person in question. But it’s often hard to tell the difference.

Let’s take this passage.

A full 70 per cent of the airport’s departing passengers were off on trips for pleasure. It was easy to spot them at this time of year, in their shorts and hats. David was a thirty-eight-year old shipping broker, and his wife, Louise, a thirty-five-year-old full-time mother and ex-television producer. They lived in Barnes with their two children, Ben, aged three, and Millie, aged five. I found them towards the back of a check-in line for a four-hour flight to Athens. Their final destination was a villa with a pool at the Katafigi Bay resort, a fifty-minute drive away from the Greek capital in a Europcar Category C vehicle.

The detail here is so excessive, and though this family and their holiday are entirely plausible, it is difficult to imagine an interview that would yield so much information, unless it took place in a police station. It seems likely that if de Botton did meet someone matching the description of David and Louise, at least some of the ‘facts’ here have been supplied by the author. He continues:

It would be difficult to overestimate how much time David had spent time thinking about his holiday since he had first booked it, the previous January. He had checked the weather reports online every day. He had placed the link to the Dimitra Residence in his Favourites folder and regularly navigated to it, bringing up images of the limestone master bathroom and of the house at dusk, lit up against the rocky Mediterranean slopes. He had pictured himself playing with the children in the palm-lined garden and eating grilled fish and olives with Louise on the terrace.2

We have long since left behind anything that might have come out of a conversation and de Botton has entered the realm of the fictional with a third-person omniscient narrator who renders David’s thoughts and feelings in the language of an Anglo-Swiss philosopher (rather than reporting it in direct or free indirect speech that might have conveyed the more colloquial idiom Dave himself might have used).

Roger Green

If one can reconstruct a multitude of different stories from A Week at the Airport (from the businessmen who occupy the executive lounges to those who clean up after them) (and this is the one of the book’s great merits), they remain rather indistinguishable at the level of discourse. Their accents, idioms and idiolects disappear in the uniform narrative voice that is used to paraphrase them.

De Botton’s antithesis is Roger Green. While there are some silent encounters, by and large Destination Nowhere is a cacophony of different voices: sentences he overhears, dialogues in which he participates, and longer sections where he transcribes (and presumably abridges) the confessions of a few customers and staff who agree to be formally interviewed.

Here’s an extract:

‘He’s got the fucking key. Why can’t he open up?’

‘It’s what I’ve been telling you.’

‘He can’t do it.’

‘His company, his money.’

I arrive at the end of a mobile phone conversation.

The man in an olive-green shirt with a matching dark tie, and carefully groomed jet black hair, speaks directly at the man sitting across the table to him and down his mobile simultaneously. The second man in a dark off-the-rail Burton’s discount suit is quiet.

The ‘mouthy’ one reminds me of a younger Dave Bassett when he was manager at Wimbledon. You know, always up for it, talks bollocks, and is oblivious to those around him.

Lots of arm waving and ‘fuckings’ as they leave.

Sometimes I feel as if I am on the set of The Truman Show with Jim Carey [sic]. Is this an artificial world I am in?3

No names have been changed here, although one of the anonymous characters has been lent the name of a former football manager in an attempt to convey his manner. The phone transcript, the arrangement of the two men and their clothes, lightly suggest a possible backstory (or rather several possible backstories), but the scene more forcefully invites the reader to imagine what it feels like for the narrator-protagonist to observe and listen to them, well before the enigmatic closing paragraph. The scare-quotes around ‘mouthy’ suggest he is aware that a more sophisticated term might be more appropriate but cannot call it to mind. But then he throws caution to the winds in the strikingly vernacular gloss on his Bassett comparison that follows.

The passage well captures, I think, the slightly smug tone of the book’s narrator. But I think the documentary impulse gives us enough detail, gives the characters enough space, to make us wonder if Green isn’t being unduly dismissive here, drawing our sympathy to two men, particularly the silent companion.

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle also adopts the diary format, but her entries are much more measured and meticulous than Green’s. First and foremost they describe rooms, almost as if they are unoccupied, like the opening directions for a scene in a playscript. But in this example the narrator’s presence is evident from the start.

Monday 2 March, 10.30am. I go in to 24, the pink room. The twin beds are unmade. A strange feeling of deja-vu. Images are jumbled. Days and guests blend into one another. Had I not already seen to these people? The first things I notice are the books on the table: The Colour Orange by Alain Gerber and a French-Italian dictionary. In the wardrobe: the ordinary clothes of a banal couple, camera equipment in a shoulder bag, an empty suitcase. The drawer is stuffed full of handkerchieves, insulin medication, Gauloises Caporal.

‘I enter’ and then – without using the first person – her subjectivity inflects most of the suceeding sentences (a sense of deja-vu, the way the days merge into each other) and we follow her gaze around the room (the books on the table, the clothes in the wardrobe, the contents of the drawer). A precision (make of cigarettes, the title of the book, the type of medicine) indicates a particular level of attention, and only the words ordinaires and banal betray any sense of judgement; they stand out from what seems to be a dispassionate inventory.

And then:

I empty the handbag on the floor: sachets of sugar, tampax, pink lipstick, postal orders in the name of Paulette B., old tickets for a Xenakis concert and a diary.

Calle, we might have guessed by now, is no ordinary housekeeper, and indeed appears to spend very little time actually cleaning the rooms, preferring, in fact, to search them. And of course the diary is too much to resist. So in her own diary Calle transcribes extracts from another:

On the first page I read: ‘In the event of my decease, everything I own is at the sole disposition of M. Francois G.’ and the signature of Paulette B., childish, touching. Under the heading ‘Notes’, this figure: 23, 485.68, the address of a retirement home in Versailles, a sentence: ‘A chamois of between a year and 18 months is called an éterlon,’ and a quotation from Malraux, which I decipher with difficulty. I think it says: ‘It was the first white civilization but it was also the glittering lagoon of a Maori world […] For us there is difficulty in associating the Iliad, or even the Odyssey, with these courts in which naked princes wearing ostrich-feather headdresses bowed their lances before Phedra-like grandes dames exhibiting their breasts above chastely billowing flounces of fine linen.’ A. Malraux, NRF, 1954, page 93.4

And the text continues a good while beyond this. Fragments from which one might begin to construct a character, but there is too much that is inscrutable. Calle makes no attempt to extrapolate Paulette B from these fragments; nor do they seem to be chosen in order to prompt readers to draw their own conclusions. In a sense, the actual contents of the diary – or indeed of the handbag – are irrelevant. The main point is Calle’s shocking willingness to pry: to exceed the bounds of what might be thought to be acceptable conduct on the part of both a housekeeper and a travel writer.

The Limits of Fabrication

The thing is, though. By the time she enters room 24 we’re more than half way through the book and have grown accustomed to her modus operandi. The way she opens drawers and luggage, and arranges belongings on the bed or floor in order to photograph them. The way she registers subtle differences from one day to the next, prompting the kinds of speculations one might expect from a private detective.

That she reports her investigations in such detail seems to be governed by the need to convince her readers that she actually did act so improperly, for her project is to expose and unsettle our preconceptions about the public and private. But the detail nevertheless exceeds this purpose.

The hotel guests, like Paulette B, remain elusive figures, but they occupy a disproportionate space in Calle’s discours than any histoire we might try to reconstruct from their fragments. Indeed, as you read on, Paulette B begins to nag like an unsolved crossword clue – as if, once her mystery has been cracked, she could be called on to appear in an alternative narrative in which she is the protagonist. (And Calle runs like hell once Paulette discovers she’s been reading her diary).

I think this is true – to a greater or lesser degree – of minor characters more generally. In other words, minor characters often seem to serve a merely instrumental role (providing local colour, acting as a mouthpiece for some contextual history, assisting or obstructing the traveller’s progress), ‘flat’ in order that the protagonist can be ‘round’. But at the same time, there is always a possibility that they are given too much space, that we get carried away by David and Louise or intrigued by the man in the green shirt – partly because we might feel that the text has been a little unfair to them. At which point the authority of the protagonist begins to falter.

In an interview Colin Thubron was asked about the role of fabrication in travel writing. In his reply he makes what is – I think – a fairly commonplace distinction.

On the one hand, he insists that a certain kind of fabrication is inevitable, even necessary in travel writing. He talks of himself of having ‘jumbled people’. Part of this is due to the imperfections of memory, but of course even if accurately remembered, a writer must choose what to leave in and leave out, to describe and interpret events in a particular way that betrays one’s ‘sensibility’ or ‘personality’. He also suggests that a deliberate falsification can be ‘useful in some ways. In the China book,’ he says, ‘I wasn’t sure if some people or myself were not being watched, so you displace them in the narrative to somewhere else.’

On the other hand, pressed by the interviewer, who asks about rather less acceptable forms of fabrication – specifically (and rather economically) ‘the temptation to make things up, or fudge quotes’ – the point at which, we might say, the novelistic techniques of characterisation have gone too far. Thubron admits the temptation but has never succumbed because he doesn’t think he could carry it off. ‘If someone were to say I’ve got to make up somebody I met, I wouldn’t know where to be begin – it would stand out like the most obvious fake.’

He continues:

I’ve got one or two friends who write about cultures that they really know – the States, for instance. And one friend – quite a well-known travel writer, I won’t mention his name – says it’s just a change of gear. He writes the facts, and then he goes up a gear and starts imagining from there on, and claims it’s fact. But for me, fiction is like getting into a different car. My imagination is working in a completely different way.5

We might note Thubron’s reluctance to make a moral judgement here. Making things up and fudging quotes are not wrong, just not the way he personally likes to work. But they are not quite equivalent alternatives, matters of taste. He feels compelled to introduce this minor character – whom he declines to name (which of course only makes us more curious) – who precisely does make things up and fudge quotes and claims it’s fact. In order to give his own way of doing things more integrity, he conjures up this reckless, speeding driver who breaks the limit with impunity, while casting himself as a more law-abiding motorist who – when he allows himself the thrill of speed – does so in a more appropriate vehicle, presumably in a safer place (like a race track).

A contrast which is highly moralistic. And yet, like any story that requires a villain, it is hard to stop that villain becoming lovable. After all, fast cars are frighteningly popular.

Notes

Based on a paper first presented at the Travel and Truth conference in Oxford, 16-18 September 2011.

  1. Alex Woloch, The One Vs The Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  2. Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary (London: Profile, 2009), pp. 37-38.
  3. Roger Green, Destination Nowhere: A South Mimms Motorway Service Station Diary (London: Athena, 2004), pp. 117-18.
  4. Sophie Calle, L’Hôtel (Paris: Actes Sud, 1998), pp. 92-4. My translation, except for the quotation from Malraux, for which I used Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Metamorphosis of the Gods, London, Secker, 1960, p. 41.
  5. Colin Thubron interviewed by Alec Ash, The Browser 22 July 2011.

He Looked Like a Tapir

I’ve been reading The Lost City of Z, David Grann’s attempt to discover the fate of the British explorer ‘Colonel’ Percy Fawcett who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925.

This is a well-written but, in many ways, very conventional, footsteps book, in which the author casts himself as an effete, impractical couch potato (‘I am not a traveller’) opposite Fawcett’s almost superhuman determination and physical prowess.

As the book tacks between the reconstruction of Fawcett’s consecutive explorations of Amazonia and Grann’s present-day trip, we also get a corresponding contrast between the untamed wilderness of the 1920s (where the most advanced technology available to explorers as they hacked their way through pathless forest were primitive radios) and the increasingly deforested Amazon that can be crossed in all-terrain vehicles and motor boats, where tiny villages are now substantial towns that even have modest skyscapers, and where locals learn about their ancestral traditions by watching government-funded documentaries in outdoor cinemas.

The contrast between Fawcett and Grann is reinforced by a sense of the political changes that have taken place between them, changes that make imperialist adventures less acceptable to us today. And even if Fawcett is praised for his relatively peaceful attitude towards the native Amazonians (he strongly disapproves of strong-arm tactics, even in self-defence, employed by other explorers), the book would give us enough evidence to condemn Fawcett in a hypothetical court set up to establish the guilt of travel writers for whom ‘other cultures’ are no more than a stage on which they act out their own fantasies, choreograph their own mythologies.

But Grann does not set out to judge Fawcett. Indeed, there is a strong sense of affinity between them, marked perhaps most obviously by the parallels between them as fathers who leave a wife and young child behind as they head off to the unknown. On the very first page of his book, Grann explains that he ‘left behind my wife and one-year-old son’, echoing Fawcett’s own decision to join an expedition in 1906, even as he thought of ‘his wife, Nina, who was pregnant again, and his son Jack’. Grann refers to Fawcett as being ‘as neglectful of his family and children as his parents had been of him’ and perhaps – as a metaphorical great grandchild – Grann’s own willingness to desert his nearest and dearest is merely a generational echo. After all, isn’t there always something a bit Oedipal about footsteps travel, a wish to out-do or supplant one’s forebears? (As there is, of course, about book reviews).

So Grann shows some reluctance to criticise Fawcett directly, although he does acknowledge that others have poured scorn on his apparently delusional obsession with a pre-Columbian El Dorado (or ‘City of Z’), whose ruins he is determined to discover, and his fascination with the occult. Certainly Grann makes no serious effort to consider how Fawcett’s mission must have seemed to the native Amazonians who – both in the reconstruction of Fawcett’s gung-ho expeditions and in Grann’s own, post-colonial, duplication of them – tend to be depicted as people who either help or hinder the quest, without much indication of what they themselves might have thought about it or why they responded to him the way they did.

But there are moments in the book where a ‘native point of view’ peeps out between the lines of the Indiana Jones narrative. In one village Grann meets an old woman who remembers

when the three outsiders [Fawcett, his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmell] came to stay in our village. I remember them because I had never seen people so white and with such long beards. My mother said, ‘Look, the Christians are here!’ … We didn’t know who they were, but we knew they must be important because they slept in the school … I remember that they were tall, so tall. And one of them carried a funny pack. He looked like a tapir.

Just before Grann leaves she recalls other people coming from far away to look for them. ‘What is it that these white people did?’ she asked. ‘Why is it so important for their tribe to find them?’

The question is left unanswered.

Grann is told of the whereabouts of Fawcett’s remains, and he is invited to Canarana, a small frontier town to meet the chief of the Kalapalos in order to retrieve them. The Kalapalos ask him if he is a relative, possibly anxious that Grann has come to avenge Fawcett’s death – and in some ways they are nearer the mark that perhaps Grann would be willing to admit. But they also ask for $5000. Grann says he doesn’t have ‘that kind of money’.

One of the Kalapalos stepped toward me and said, ‘The spirits told me that you were coming and that you are rich.’ Another Kalapalo added, ‘I’ve seen pictures of your cities. You have too many cars. You should give us a car’.

The negotiations become heated and Grann feels intimidated. They break off and two hours later his guide Paolo reports he has secured a compromise. Grann will be taken into the Xingu National Park if he pays ‘for transportation and several hundred dollars’ worth of supplies’.

Cordiality breaks out and next day they depart in a more powerful vehicle. Their driver wishes them well: ‘I hope you find this Y you are looking for’. Presumably he means Z – although this apparent confusion unexpectedly recalls the carved letter Y’s reportedly left by Fawcett according to a rescue party led by George Dyott in 1927.

But the narrator does admit that his quest seems ‘trivial’ when he learns of plans to build a dam, which has created tension between different ‘tribes’ over the money offered to appease them.

Nevertheless the quest continues. As they head upriver to the place where the bones were discovered, Grann is told ‘there are many things about the Englishmen that only Kalapalo people know’. And one of them, it would appear, is that the remains were not of Fawcett after all. But the Kalapalo do have an oral tradition that tells of three white men (one old, two young) who passed that way long ago, heading off to hostile territory and never coming back.

Grann never ascertains how the trio met their end. But in the closing pages he turns to consider Fawcett’s determination to prove the existence of an ancient Amazonian civilization. He plans his book, so it climaxes with his arrival in the Kuikoro settlement in the Xingu where the archaeologist Michael Heckenberger has spent the last thirteen years – ‘on and off’, and had ‘been adopted by the Kuikoro chief and had his own hut in the village.’

Of course Heckenburger knows of Fawcett and, it turns out, he has made a series of momentous discoveries that suggest that Fawcett’s hunch was actually correct. And Grann is shown the traces (a moat, shards of pottery, embankments) of what must once have been a substantial, economically-advanced society.

But this – in the final chapter, entitled, simply, ‘Z’ – is a rather disappointing finale. For, as he admits, Heckenberger is one of a number of archaeologists and anthropologists who have revised traditional scepticism regarding the pre-Columbian Amazon. There is in fact a body of published research that confirms that something like ‘Z’ did – in fact – really exist.

Grann hardly needed to go to South America at all. For what he discovers was available in his local library all along. By the end of the book I was thinking that the story of Heckenberger’s thirteen years actually sounded more interesting than Fawcett’s. He also has the advantage of being alive.

Beware of Crocodiles

Epic journeys don’t necessarily involve epic distances. The journey at the heart of Roger Hutchinson’s Calum’s Road is just one and three quarter miles.

Calum MacLeod lived on the island of Raasay in the Scottish Hebrides, where he worked as a crofter, lighthouse keeper, postman. But his village was nearly two miles from the end of the road.

Frustrated at the lack of commitment on the part of Inverness County Council, despite the repeated appeals from the community, he decided, around 1964, to extend the highway himself. Virtually single-handedly, over more than ten years, ‘with the aid of a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a road-making manual which cost him three shillings’, he widened the track which wound its way round the hillside, above the sea-cliffs, and in and out of deep glens, laying the foundations for a rough thoroughfare until that final moment when he could drive his Land Rover all the way to his door.

Finally, after another long wait, the road became what he called an Autobahn, when in 1982 the council belatedly made amends and surfaced it in tarmac.

If conventional travel books should be first-person narratives, then this is not a conventional travel book. After all, most journeys never make their way into print. And those that do often only find a readership through the offices of a historian or biographer, roles that Hutchinson plays well here.

He has plenty of material to draw on. As news of MacLeod’s astonishing project spread, it featured in guidebooks, radio and TV programmes, and art exhibitions. Capercaillie even wrote a song about it (you can hear it in the background of the video above). As be became something of a celebrity, McLeod talked to many outsiders. And as a prolific writer of letters to the newspapers, he left a substantial record relating to his struggle.

Hutchinson could have turned the story into a novel. And maybe fictionalizing it would have given us a keener sense of the day-to-day experience of building the road, and brought us closer to the people it was designed to serve. But Hutchinson chooses to tell a wider-ranging account that takes us back to the Clearances of the 1820s. And makes of Calum a heroic figure who stands for all those who took a stand against the powers that be, which in the twentieth century helped to depopulate the Highlands and Islands as the rapacious landlords had done in the nineteenth.

As schools and post offices were allowed to close, and transport links failed to materialise, the road became a monument not to the past, but to a possible future, whose keynote is active regeneration rather than passive neglect, justified cynically by the dwindling numbers of residents caused largely by that neglect in the first place.

Hutchinson does not sentimentalize his protagonist. He does not spare us some of the less attractive strands to his ideology. MacLeod’s antipathy to the 1960s establishment is intensified by his hostility to the liberalisation of laws regarding homosexuality, abortion and capital punishment. He wrote a ballad about his achievements that talked of himself ‘working like a nigger’, a phrase that may give us pause, though Hutchinson passes over it without comment.

But the most unexpected passage in the book concerns a letter MacLeod wrote to the Stornoway Gazette in 1970. He refers to a history of Egypt on his desk and comments:

There is reference to allegations of transactions with crocodiles. I fully believe that were these reptiles common to our riverbanks, Socialists in their apathy to crime or evils would not ban this abomination, but would gladly seize the opportunity to licence and tax as harmless amusement.

In a surprisingly long footnote, Hutchinson explains that the book was probably a translation of Description de l’Egypte, the monumental Napoleonic survey that was originally published between 1809 and 1828. Apparently it included claims that ‘Egyptian fellahin had congress with crocodiles as part of divine worship’, claims later given credence by the explorer Richard Burton. But it was all nonsense.

According to a ‘modern veterinarian’ he does not identify, Hutchinson tells us that the activity observed must have been attempts to determine the sex of the reptile, an activity that involved adopting a position that was evidently open to misinterpretation.

It is clear from Calum’s Road that MacLeod travelled quite widely in Scotland; and he was certainly very well-read. But travel doesn’t always broaden the mind. And travel books – like the Description de l’Egypte – perhaps even less so.

But building a road with your bare hands. You can’t argue with that.