Magazine article The Spectator

Losing Oneself-And Reader

Magazine article The Spectator

Losing Oneself-And Reader

Article excerpt


by Gianni Celati

University of Chicago Press, L13, pp. 180

Travel literature falls into three categories. In the first, the intention is to provide tourists with the information they think they may need for their holiday: local delicacies, the necessity of malaria jabs, a brief outline of the country's history, whether it is advisable to bribe police officers etc. The second reads like a bumper book of travellers' tales, an unrelenting cabaret of amusing incidents and hilarious misunderstandings between the writer and the natives, some of which may be true. The third category is generally assumed to be the highest of the three art forms. Books in this group attempt to paint a portrait of the land and its people, adding the sensation of depth through the writer's sensibility for the perspective of historical and cultural forces. It has thus fallen to the Italian novelist, Gianni Celati, to do something new. The story of his travels through the West African countries of Mali, Mauritania and Senegal cannot be said to fit any of the established classifications.

Celati seeks to tell it like it is, without baroque flourish or rococo artifice. What he has not seen or met is beyond the horizon and absent from his canvas. The result is a tabula rasa travelogue, not so much a journey as a sparrow's flight, the deeper meaning of which remains unclear. What we do know is that he intends to spend his time with a friend researching for a documentary about Dogon priests. The project never takes off and Celati appears like a traveller without purpose in a slow-moving part of the world where 'tomorrow' is too urgent a word.

This state of affairs ought to produce a work of naive charm. Indeed, comprising the notebooks of Celati's trip ungarnished, his book should have a tart and fresh immediacy, as if he is the reader's travelling companion. Unfortunately, the entries read like what they really are - rough notes. Furthermore, the content is so spectacular for its absence of incident that many readers must surely wonder whether the title, Adventures in Africa, could be ironic.

One hesitates to be rude about a book that has been hailed as a masterpiece in Italy, where it won the Zerilli-Marimo prize. But, ultimately, truth must triumph. There is an extraordinary passage where Celati states that it had been a lifetime desire to visit Timbuktu. However, when the opportunity presents itself, he decides against going there having heard that it is only a poor imitation of Djenne. …

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