SOMETHING TO DECLARE
Two prizes were handed out this week, both reminding us how closely truth and fiction are interwoven in the slippery genre called travel literature.
On Wednesday, at Hatchards bookshop in London's Piccadilly, the 120-year-old Authors' Club (of which I am president) gave the 2012 Dolman Travel Book Prize to Wild Coast by John Gimlette, a fabulously vivid and absorbing trek through Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
Anyone who has been there knows Guyana is one of the most inhospitable places on earth (80 per cent rainforest, impenetrable jungle and homicidal locals) but that didn't stop the intrepid Gimlette finding it yelping with "gaudy, toxic and exotic" life.
He notes that, 500 years ago, people's ideas about Guyana owed everything to Sir Walter Raleigh's book, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana which was a tissue of lies designed to attract merchants and investors. He described "golden cities and comely Amazons diamond mountains, dog-headed mermen, week-long festivals and men with their eyes in their chests". Everyone believed him.
And do we now believe everything John Gimlette tells us? Of course. But "the truth" has become relative. A reviewer in The New York Times couldn't resist comparing Gimlette's view of Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname ("the perfect city") with her Texan cousin's visit (he found "a thatched hut infested with rats and giant spiders"). She admired the author's vision, though.
The day before the Dolman prize-giving, the 2012 Independent on Sunday/Bradt Travel Writing Competition was won by Julia Bohanna for her story "A Wolf in the Mountains" (see page 79). …