This month’s blog theme is ‘Wish You Were Here’ – we’re jetting around the literary world to explore the concept of travel in fiction. We’ve asked some of our authors to tell us about their ideal literary holidays: here Claire Lowdon heads to the land of magic realism to experience one of the most vivid voyages in literature.
‘Ten years ago I promised myself I’d avoid short-haul flights – anything within Europe – whenever it was reasonably possible to do so. I was – I am – worried about carbon emissions. I quickly came to see that by refusing to fly I’m doing very little to help the environment: that it’s mostly just a symbolic gesture, like vegetarianism. As people tell me (all the time), the plane’s going anyway. The cow is already dead.
But I’ve stuck to my ‘rule’ without too much difficulty, because it turns out I love the travelling part. A journey that takes a couple of hours in plane can easily take two days by boat and train, and I say, bring it on. It’s not just the chance to see countries panning by outside your window, France turning into Belgium then Holland then Germany. Or the slowness that gives you a true sense of the distance travelled. (Travelling by plane is always discombobulating, like entering a wormhole or taking a teleportation pill. No time for your soul to catch up with your body, as they say.) It’s the microclimate of the train itself that appeals – being held in between places, neither in the world nor out of it.
So my dream literary holiday would be a journey, not a destination: the steamboat trip down Colombia’s Magdalena river, at the end of Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s ageing heroine Fermina Daza’s ‘lifetime dream’ – but not because she’ll be travelling with Florentino Ariza, the grand passion of her youth. Like me, she loves the lightness of travelling, the peculiar freedom that confinement entails. ‘She felt immense relief at the thought of spending eight days traveling upriver and five on the return, with no more than the bare necessities: half a dozen cotton dresses, her toiletries, a pair of shoes for embarking and disembarking, her house slippers for the journey, and nothing else.’
That said, I’d only want to travel on the New Fidelity if I could secure the Presidential Suite. For most of the passengers, when the boat anchors at night, ‘the simple fact of being alive’ becomes ‘unendurable’ thanks to the ‘pestilential stench’ of their cabins and the ‘predatory creatures’ that leave them ‘exhausted and swollen with bites.’ The Presidential Suite boasts ‘a sitting room with bamboo furniture covered in festive colours, a double bedroom decorated with Chinese motifs, a bathroom with tub and shower, a large, enclosed observation deck with hanging ferns and an unobstructed view toward the front and both sides of the boat, and a silent cooling system that kept out external noises and maintained a perpetual climate of spring.’
And after a fortnight of sipping anisette on the observation deck, watching the haunting contrasts of the river and its banks – the terrible effects of deforestation, the ghost of a drowned woman who waves to the ship from a ruined port, a rare manatee, the passengers holding swimming contests or organising hunting expeditions on shore, returning ‘with live iguanas that they split open from top to bottom and sewed up again with baling needles after removing the clusters of soft, translucent eggs that they strung over the railings to dry’ – perhaps I’ll feel, like Fermina Daza, that arrival ‘is going to be like dying’. By this point, she is ‘convinced at last of her love’ for Florentino Ariza: ‘it was as if they had leapt over the arduous cavalry of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love.’ Florentino Ariza’s beautiful, romantic, hopeless solution is simply never to arrive – to extend their journey indefinitely, going from port to port with the yellow cholera flag flying, keeping the real world forever at bay.’
Claire Lowdon’s debut novel ‘Left of the Bang‘ will be published on June 4th.
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