Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser, Allen & Unwin, 528 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1743311776
The philosopher Agnes Heller once wrote of a conversation she had with a middle-aged woman she was sitting next to on a long haul international flight to Australia; the woman had an occupation that required endless travel. She spoke five languages and owned three apartments in different cities. Recalling a previous conversation with an old friend thirty years earlier, who had never once left the place that was his home in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, Heller was motivated to inquire of her on-board acquaintance: “Where are you at home?” The woman thought momentarily, and then replied, a little perplexed: “Perhaps, where my cat lives.”
This exchange captures not only one of the most salient features of modern life – the incessant movement of people(s) – but also raises questions about place and “home”, of geography and history, of contingency and dislocation. Heller’s question contains a query not only about where it is we might call “home”, but what designates this sense of “home”, notions of shared history or citizenship, a sense of welcome or belonging, an accident of birth or family, an apartment or a cat? The modern world, she suggests, is one characterised by “geographical promiscuity”; our propensity to travel and general ease and ability to do so (at least for wealthy and middle class westerners) means we no longer privilege “home” as a spatial category as perhaps we once did but now experience it as temporal – one of living in the “absolute present” rather than one of place. In this sense, in the contemporary modern world it is possible to be “at home” both everywhere and nowhere; we live in a world of contingency; one of movement and change rather than stability and certainty.
Of course travel is not a distinctly modern phenomenon; the movement of people across the world has a long history well beyond the contemporary period that we now associate with globalisation. It is predated by a history of constant resettlement and expansion, colonisation and imperialism, trade and exchange, migration and the internationalisation of labour. It evokes movements of people and trade routes that stretch from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, to Africa, Europe and the Americas, carrying spices, tea, coffee, weapons, horses and slaves; it includes the exchange of ideas, ideologies, values, technologies and peoples, as much as it does touristic travel and existential journey. Perhaps being stationary is more an exception than the propensity to travel; to move towards something, perhaps even unknown, or to move away from something, to move on.
This sense of journeying, of movement, of travel, is reflected in some of the most prominent works of literature; from Homer’s Odyssey to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Forster’s A Passage to India, and more recently, in a different register, Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic and Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel (recently shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC award). However, as many of these works also reveal, travel is always only one side of the equation; at the other end stands the question of place or “home”. For despite the fact that we seem to have an endless propensity for travel, Heller suggests, there is also one privileged place among others, even if that place is only a memory, and not a place to which we can or ever want to return; it still perhaps acts as a place of orientation (an accident of birth, perhaps, or a place of safety). It is this sense of a tension between travel and place (or “home”) that also creates a sense of both contingency and dislocation, of being a “stranger”.
However, as Questions of Travel suggests, this sense of strangeness has very different meanings depending on whether one travels in freedom or not; there are two very different experiences of travel and of being a “stranger”; a vast difference between the “global rich” and the “local poor”, to use her terms. There are those who freely choose to travel and those compelled to do so, often due to a “history not of their own making”, fleeing from persecution, fear and hardship. In this sense, there are grave inequalities between those who can travel in freedom and those who cannot, despite the fact that freedom of movement was recognised as a basic human right after the experiences of the Second World War, which resulted in atrocities when the persecuted were prevented from travelling across designated borders.
As with de Kretser’s previous work, Questions of Travel explores these themes of trauma, dislocation and the inequity between travellers by contrasting two main characters, Ravi and Laura, over the time span of around forty years. Their lives are seemingly disconnected and irreducible to one another but intersect momentarily at the close of the novel. Ravi is a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, who as a boy was mesmerised by the map of the world that his geography teacher unfurled before him and the other boys each class, the small “green jewel” that was their island twinkling before the boys’ eyes. “History is only a byproduct of geography … geography is destiny,” the teacher would impress upon the class. Ravi had a penchant for studying geography but his mother intervened to ensure he concentrated on maths and computer science. Ravi’s story takes place against the background of the Sri Lankan civil war between the state and the Tamil Tigers when people begin to disappear and tortured bodies begin to litter outlying streets. Ravi marries Malini and the two live with his mother and family until he finds a position teaching mathematics in Colombo. Malini, who vows not “to live her life in vain”, becomes dedicated to the defence of human rights, agitating to highlight brutalities occurring at the hands at both the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers. One night Ravi awakens to find his wife brutally murdered, her body displayed in a gruesome reconstruction of sculptural kitsch on top of the television in the rooming house to which the two had moved after the birth of their son. His young son’s body is found left like washed-up refuse in the gutter outside. Ravi’s name is carved into the skin of his wife’s body, a grim warning that he will be next. He knows too much. With the insistence of his wife’s NGO co-worker, he is taken into hiding while desperate measures are employed to secure a tourist visa that will help him escape to Australia, where he then attempts to claim asylum. He has a “simple, terrible need to be taken into account”.
Laura, who is from Sydney, comes from a dysfunctional family. Her mother died when she was an infant and she is raised by an aunt and a largely absent, disengaged father. When her aunt dies, she receives a comfortable inheritance and decides to travel the world. Eventually she settles in London, where after several menial jobs she finally finds work writing for a travel publication. There is a sense with Laura, of travelling for travel’s sake, to keep moving in order to “avoid taking root” where the ground under her might be unstable or inhospitable; or to avoid facing a lack, something missing or lost. Although she seemingly creates a new “home” in London, the memories of her travel do not seem to prick beneath the surface of her skin; they barely leave impressions, merely mementos one carries around in an old suitcase. It is as though Laura is unable to experience the places to which she travels, as though she is always looking at them from behind a bus window; temples, churches, all manner of holy sites, simply sliding by on the other side of the glass, refracted through a camera lens or the instructions of her travel guide book, mimicking the path trodden by many a worldweary traveller, those who all follow the same instructions in the same travel guide book. As Laura travels endlessly from place to place, hopelessly adrift whether in Bangkok or Sydney, Paris or London, the question of why she travels and where she belongs, constantly washes over her as she tries to navigate the tension between time and place, of belonging and “home”.
Her unease recalls the lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel” from which the novel takes its title, a poem which also plays with a tension between travel, place and the question of “where we are at home?” In Bishop’s poem, which was written when she lived in Brazil, there is a similar sense of dislocation and uprootedness, of home being both everywhere and nowhere: “Should we have stayed at home / wherever that may be?”, she writes “But surely it would have been a pity / not to have seen the trees along this road, / really exaggerated in their beauty.” The poem, then, also gestures towards the particularity of place and experience, of not merely imagining but “encountering others”, a kind of cosmopolitan imagining:
Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about sitting quietly in one’s room?
A similar sensibility is captured in de Kretser’s novel, when Laura is travelling around Europe and finds herself in Lisbon. She ponders how “… ships sailing from this harbour had once shrunk and expanded the world, mapping its modern configuration”. In the “rage for profit and cartography” the world had been reshaped and redrawn but had also become interdependent. Laura could see how her birthplace place “hooked into histories that ran back and forth across the globe, so that it hung in its watery corner with the stretched, starfish look of a map produced by a radical projection”. Lisbon would settle on her memory like the scent of “cooked food in the street” but “[w]ho can explain the sympathy that runs swift as a hound and as stubbornly between people and places?” Yet, as she stands there in the glow of the city’s shining lights, Laura asks herself: “What are you doing here?” Invoking Bishop, she concludes, this is travel, both “marvellous and sad”.
Bishop’s poem, however, also raises the question of travel and the tendency for exoticisation or “othering” and voyeurism: “Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?” So too de Kretser’s novel raises similar questions and comments on the complexity and multidimensionality of “cross-cultural encounters”. In one scene when Laura is travelling through southeast Asia, she stays with a local family in Bali. The children in the household perform variations of Balinese dance at night. Even though they are uninterested and the youngest wanders off, they are raised to learn that western travellers expect such reconstructions of cultural ritual and identity. As she leaves Laura vows to “keep in touch”, to write and send gifts for the children on an ongoing basis; but she never does, always too busy in her job as a travel writer to continue the relationship.
Ravi recounts the experience of being “travelled upon” in Sri Lanka and the novel critiques the notion of travel in search of “cultural authenticity”, instead depicting the porosity of cultures, especially in the wake of new communications technologies. In one scene, tourists visiting Sri Lanka complain about wanting a more “pure” and unadulterated cultural experience. Those using the RealLanka service, a website set up to offer local knowledge of travel within Sri Lanka, complain and are “affronted” when those “urban families” they have been billeted to stay with “addressed them in English” or watched “reruns of American soaps”. One European traveller wrote “that the household into which he was thrust was grossly materialistic. He had been assured that these people were Buddhists” yet they offered him meat. He demanded a refund.
The novel is also populated by diasporic figures, such as Keira, a young Irish woman who visits a graveyard in Sydney on behalf of her grandmother. Her brother had left Ireland when he was seventeen for a new life in Sydney, never to return. She had never seen him again. Following in his footsteps two generations later, Keira has travelled to Australia on a one-year work visa, travelling from coast to coast serving beers to fellow travellers in popular tourist destinations, hoping to find work not available at home. She meets Ravi at the cemetery and their bodies and lives momentarily intertwine. They share a compassion and a need. Keira’s hand gently passes over the indentations that permanently pattern Ravi’s back; the marks of brutality and trauma etched into his body.
There is also Theo, Laura’s platonic love of sorts, who is writing a book on nostalgia in the twentieth century European novel. Theo dreams his mother’s dreams, and recounts her stories as if they were his own. They are stories of persecution and her escape to London from Poland during the war, the history of his mother’s family murdered at the hands of the Nazis, of “babies bayoneted in front of their parents” and of “a forest floor that moved for days”, with writhing bodies. This is a history that has taken over his body in equal measure to the copious amounts of wine he drinks each night. He has taken to scrawling lines from Celan’s “Death Fugue” around London tube stations recalling Jews being whistled into line. Theo suggests to Laura that the modern age is as much about the “unwilling traveller” as the willing one: “all the people made homeless because of [war] … Now the world is full of people who do not belong where they end up and long for the places where they did.”
These figures speak of “home” being both everywhere and nowhere, of memory, dislocation and nostalgia, through the colour blue, a typical feature of de Kretser’s oeuvre. In her previous novel The Lost Dog the “lostness” of the dog stands in for another kind of loss (or sense of being lost); the sense of something missing (an existential sense of being adrift). That novel, too, traces the life of Tom, an Anglo-Indian man who migrated from India to Melbourne, Australia with his parents aged twelve. Despite his overwhelmingly successful migrant experience, there is a sense that something is always missing for Tom, a quiet bewilderment and despair at something not quite known that is lost; a kind of haunting. Not long after arriving in Melbourne, his father, Arthur, is killed, hit by a tram. In the moment of his death he thinks he can feel blue petals on his tongue, a sense of strangeness; or a kind of “aesthetic dislocation” as Gail Jones perceptively described it in discussion with de Kretser at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The sensation recalls a moment many years earlier when Arthur was living in a rooming house in India, where children play around him as he drifts into sleep in the hot afternoon sun, whisky playing a merry tune on his breath. A little girl boldly places blue petals on his tongue as he sleeps, mouth open. It is this sense of strangeness and connection, memory and dream, perhaps of longing, that re-enters his consciousness, wistfully washing back and forth, like waves washing over an etching in sand, that flickers over Arthur’s mind at the moment of his death. He dies thinking of the colour blue. So, too, in Questions of Travel, Laura is haunted by the past, represented by the lilac blue of jacarandas that gossamer her vision and speak to her of “home”; “fallen blooms” of blue appear before her as she stands in the line at Sainsbury’s or rides the London tube back to her apartment. This blue vision or haunting is “the colour of nostalgia itself; elusive yet unmistakable”, it speaks to her of memory, loss and promise.
A sense of “dislocation”, not only aesthetic but in its varied modalities, social, cultural and ethical, is common to de Kretser’s work. Hers are questions not only of travel but of places, those left behind or passed through; the question of our place in the world or of “being at home”. Her work also raises questions of our interconnectedness and responsibility towards others. As with Bishop’s poem, there is an imagining beyond ourselves into the lives of others but there is also a sense that even though lives may intertwine and become interdependent there are always aspects that are “lost in translation”, that are not reducible to one another and that require another kind of imaginative work; the sense, too, that travel is not enough to ensure a cosmopolitan sensibility. De Kretser takes from Henry James the idea that our perspective is only ever partial and particular and hence we need to take account of multiple perspectives in order to try to piece together a narrative, one that often remains incomplete; “the whole of anything can never be told” she quotes from James at the beginning of her previous novel.
The question of a kind of “cosmopolitan imagination”, or its incompleteness, also resurfaces in Questions of Travel when Laura is employed as a writer for a glossy London travel magazine. Travelling the world and reporting on cities in the manner of reproduction postcard images, Laura is walking through Bangkok one day when she spies a woman begging with her child near the entrance to an arcade. She fumbles in her pocket, fondling the spare notes nestled there but upon the moment of passing the woman and her child continues to walk by without lifting hand from pocket. Later, back in her hotel room, she ponders her reluctance to give, wondering if she assumed that “happiness is not a beggarly attribute”. She reflects that: “Perhaps her failure was not one of charity but of imagination”; that “…otherness is readily opaque, and she had been unable to see into it.”
At another point, Laura, now living in London, is taking evening classes in word processing. There, during a tea break, she happens to speak with a man who reveals he has recently immigrated to London from Sri Lanka seeking asylum. The charity that has secured his passage to safety with his wife and child (his wife was raped by soldiers when she was twelve) is paying for the family to learn English, but given that the man already speaks English, he has elected to learn word processing instead. Laura notices that the man, whose name she never learns, wears an oversized coat but always looks cold. Trying to make casual conversation, Laura suggests to him that “[t]he winter must have been a shock for you” coming to London. “It is the winter in people’s hearts that is the most difficult,” he replies.
This stark image is repeated in Ravi’s experience of seeking asylum in Australia. Unable to secure a tourist visa without inside help from foreign office officials, he endures a horrendous ordeal in payment for help to obtain the necessary documents; a sadistic manipulation of vulnerability, suffering and fear in a ritual of disturbing forms of domination and power – which although perhaps exaggerated also operates on a more symbolic level. Once he does reach Australia on a tourist visa, he is granted an interim order which allows him to work and live in Sydney while his application for asylum is processed. He finds work doing IT maintenance for a travel guide book publisher but his fellow office workers cannot empathise with his suffering, questioning why he has not been locked in a detention centre, they cannot understand why he will not translate his suffering into a narrative to which they can relate. They think there is a disconnect. For travellers such as his fellow office workers there is always a here and now but for Ravi as an asylum seeker awaiting his fate, there is only a “before and after”. Upon fighting continuous legal battles to seek asylum in Australia, and finally having it granted after more than two years’ wait, Ravi decides that the disconnection he feels is too great; instead of “wafting back and forth across sunsets” belonging nowhere, he seeks a continuous history, a connection to place; the voice of his murdered wife whispers to him in the night: “bodies are always local”.
With the continuous fact of migration, often to escape social, political or economic hardships, and the enormous dislocation of people due to civil unrest or war, displaced in refugee camps along the borders of Syria or Iraq, or living precariously in Ukraine, Afghanistan or Nigeria, Honduras or El Salvador (to name a few), it is perhaps a sense of hospitality or responsibility to the other that de Kretser’s novel urges most loudly. Her work also gestures towards a form of cosmopolitanism which fosters critical reflection, one that transcends national borders and inward looking forms of nationalism, one that imagines beyond narrowly defined limits of culture and nation, ever present despite rapid internationalisation of economies, labour and technologies or European transnational configurations. Such an idea evokes a sense of hospitality towards others, to all “strangers” whether travellers or migrants and especially refugees. It is one that is unconditional (Derrida) in the sense that it is given freely and with no expectation of reciprocity, given not because it is strenuously sought or earned but simply on the basis of the recognition of a shared humanity.
For as Hannah Arendt poignantly renders it: “These are gifts freely and gratuitously bestowed and their meaning … is not recognition but welcome. And if it is good to be recognized, it is better to be welcomed, precisely because this is something we can neither earn nor deserve.” Arendt wrote these lines in her acceptance speech for the Emerson Thoreau Medal in the United States in 1969, reflecting her own migratory experience, escaping from Nazi Germany via France, and eventually many years later taking up residency in the United States. But her thoughts about receiving the medal have resonance well beyond the occasion for the notions of hospitality, travel and the movements of people more generally. Arendt is right, it is better to be welcomed, but perhaps as de Kretser’s work suggests, we ultimately need both; to be recognised and to be welcomed in order to find a “home” beyond trauma.
Danielle Petherbridge is IRC Marie Curie Research Fellow in the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin and Columbia University, New York.