Travellers' Tales of Wonder: Chatwin, Naipaul, Sebald

Travellers' Tales of Wonder: Chatwin, Naipaul, Sebald

Travellers' Tales of Wonder: Chatwin, Naipaul, Sebald

Travellers' Tales of Wonder: Chatwin, Naipaul, Sebald

Synopsis

Exploring travellers' tales of wonder in contemporary literature, this study challenges a sensibility of disenchantment with travel. It reassesses travel writing as an aesthetically and ethically innovative form in contemporary international literature, and demonstrates the crucial role of wonder in the travel narratives of writers such as Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipaul, and W.G. Sebald. Their "travellers" tales of wonder' are read as a challenge to the hubris of thinking the world too wellknown, and an invitation to encounter the world - including its most troubling histories - with a sense of wonder.

Excerpt

[W]e have said or spoken nothing of the Greater Sea nor of the Provinces
which are around it, though we have well explored it all […] I omit to
speak of it, since it seems to me to be wearisome to speak that which may
be unnecessary and useless, nor that which others know always, since they
are so many who explore it and sail it every day, as is well known, such as
Venetians and Genoese and Persians and many other people who make that
journey so often that everyone knows what is there, and therefore I am silent
and say nothing to you of that.

Marco Polo, The Description of the World (1938: 489–90)

To speak of travellers’ tales of wonder in late twentieth-century literature may well strike some as oxymoronic, anachronistic, quaint: more tall tale than area of inquiry. Already at the end of the thirteenth century, the ‘wise and learned citizen of Venese’ (Polo 1938: 73) was beginning to tire of accounts of the Provinces. What promise for wonder voyaging, then, when the idiom of the ‘global village’ (McLuhan 1988: 28-31) itself rings overly familiar? Travellers’ tales of wonder belong, according to most accounts, in bygone ages: to Messer Polo; to the medieval Wonder Book; to Columbus and Ralegh and the first astonishing, and then brutally violent, Renaissance encounters between Europe and what would enter Western history – in being all but destroyed – as the ‘New World’ of the Americas. But the contemporary world is not held to be ‘new’ but ‘belated’; and we are the Nachgeborenen (Brecht 1973), ‘born afterwards’ in an era habitually described in terms of its posterity. Where once there were wonder voyages in a world unknown to itself, there are now ‘tourists with typewriters’ (Holland and Huggan 2000) in a world that can peer in on itself with Google Earth. Where once there was wonder about ‘new worlds’ there can now be found the ravages of empire that followed, hungry for possession, in its wake. ‘Over the centuries,’ writes Mary Baine Campbell, ‘the marvelous and the desirable have moved from text, to margin and preface, and finally . . .

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