IF YOU ARE planning to get away, there are any number of reasons to validate the urge. The noise pollution has reached an alarming level, posing toxic threat to the senses. The kind of words coming from cultural commissars and apprentice revolutionaries has already made this place hostile to arguments. Statements that divide the mind thicken the atmosphere, and contribute further to this season of hate. It should not be the only provocation for a change of scene.
Travel is not escapism. And when you are on the road, as our writers are in the following pages, it is a motion of the senses, an exhilaration activated by the mystery of places and the familiarity of strangers. It is freedom too, as memories are set aside by the onrush of the new, by the possibilities of the unknown.
Role models are plenty. Jack Kerouac? If you are for hippie chic. If you are for psychedelic spontaneity of the Beat generation vintage. If only you are looking for ‘mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…’ Not everyone could be Sal Paradise, Kerouac in disguise, in the staler twenty-first century.
Travel across pages and decades, and you may reach the calm stillness of Kazuo Ishiguro’s English countryside— no mad ones here, as if it is made to perfection for butlers only. Stevens’ motoring holiday in The Remains of the Day is travel as meditation, and the impending war doesn’t break the idyll—of the mind or of the meadows. ‘What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint’—and it is true of the countryside as well as the art of Ishiguro, whose Englishness carries within it the ritualistic rhythm of a Japanese tea ceremony, the slow motion of his ancestral memory. The absence of drama, the repudiation of the spectacular, is what marks the life of the perfect butler—and the static scenery of England beyond the motorways.
Too beautiful? Come to Cormac McCarthy. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.’ This is how The Road begins, the journey of a man and a boy, father and son, through the post-apocalyptic ruins, the savage secrets of which are only matched by the elemental dread of being travellers on a treacherous road. McCarthy’s sentences are dark and beautiful, lacerating and lyrical. Join him on the road and it will be one of the most rewarding experiences in modern fiction.
Travelling with writers may be a rare pleasure, and the richness of the oeuvre is yet to be matched by the movies, in spite of our enduring fascination with the road genre. What the road offers is the tension between the instant and the distant, between acceleration and anticipation. Slowness, in the Milan Kundera novel of the same name, is the unhurried poetry of existence. On the road, you have the opportunities to choose between the slow revelations of the unfolding moment and the unspecified thrills of speed. This is different from the industrial cosiness of airport lounges and hotel rooms; here the idea of destination is a sensation, here you measure the velocity of daydreams in real time.
The best of travel writing is not sightseeing. It is an enquiry. It is a conversation. It is an intimacy between strangers. You see, smell and taste a different cultural extension of your own world—and knowing the world becomes a physical as well as psychological thrill. What we feature in this special issue are such excursions of mind and body. Join us on the road to read and discover.