The exotic still lures armchair travellers

By John Gardner

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Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

The theme of this edition of Granta, the magazine of new writing, is travel. The genre has perhaps passed its time at the peak of literary fashion when the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermour, Paul Theroux and Jonathan Raban were commanding big readerships and critical attention. But the lure of the exotic persists despite the advent of mass tourism to places that once could only be reached by the most intrepid. The Silk Road is now less a place of mystery that you could only read about and more like just another destination in a glossy brochure.

Granta's definition of travel is broad and some of the pieces push the concept to its limits. Not surprisingly you won't find a chatty little article full of happy smiling natives, idyllic palm-fringed atolls and white sand beaches. There is a piece centred on a beach but it is Lagos' notorious Bar Beach, scene of public executions during the years of military rule and still, as described in Teju Cole's powerful essay, a place of menace.

There is menace, too, in Miroslav Penkov's dark story of the persistence of ethnic hostilities in contemporary Bulgaria and in the unsettling piece by Rattawut Lapcharoensap about a backpacker abducted by spooky criminals in Thailand, a story that is unlikely to be recommended by that country's tourist board.

As usual with Granta there are writers you are unlikely to have encountered, while the best known names are probably Dave Eggers and Haruki Murakami. Eggers delivers a clever little take on the clash of cultures, reflecting the fact that travel doesn't always broaden the mind and that encounters in foreign lands impact on the attitudes of the natives as well as the traveller.

If you are a fan of Murakami, his account of a short walk to Kobe two years after the massive earthquake will feel familiar with his usual tricks of flat narrative, accounting for every coffee and beer and insistent brand name-dropping. Beneath the stylistic devices he is attempting and, as he admits, failing, to resolve the conundrums of the natural and social circumstances of modern Japan.

But one of the most enjoyable pieces is from a man who is primarily a professor of medicine rather than a full-time writer although Siddhartha Mukherjee did win a Pulitzer for his book The Emperor of All Medicines: A Biography Of Cancer. In one of those works to which travel is almost incidental, he describes his engagement with a terminally ill patient while calling in on a hospital during a visit to New Delhi. With what Mukherjee describes as "astonishing deftness" the old man engineers a pain-free, lucid death, outflanking the restrictions placed on his doctors - a victory of the human spirit beyond geography.

These stories are all rewarding and there are several others in what is a particularly successful issue. I confess to having a very large blind spot about modern poetry but Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch's touching little verse, String Theory, alone is worth the $35 this Granta will cost you.

Granta 124: Travel (Granta $35)

- NZ Herald

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