Friday, February 12, 2010
Last night, after the recommendation of a friend, I began a novel set in Turkey, entitled THE SEA-CROSSED FISHERMAN by Yashar Kemal. Because I'm going to Turkey soon, I'd asked around for suggested reading. I actually had the book on my shelf, but had forgotten about it until this friend reminded me. As I was reading along, late into the night, I came to a passage that begins: "In the distance, sunk in shadow, its leaden domes, its minarets and buildings only vaguely discernible in the bluish haze, Istanbul was still asleep..." I've attached the page here, though I doubt you can read it. Still it struck a deep chord.
I think it was about 1:30 or 2a.m, but suddenly I perked up. This was the kind of passage I was waiting for. Something that took me out of my bedroom in Park Slope and put me half way around the world. I saw the haze. I heard the call to prayer. My journey had, at least in my mind, begun. This is one of the things I do whenever I'm going anywhere. I look for the stories and novels, the folktales and songs, films and food, whatever I can get my hands on to start getting my head ready for a trip. But nothing is as important to me as the books I read before or bring with me.
I'm not sure when this began, but I recall going to Greece with three books in my bag: THE ODYSSEY, ZORBA THE GREEK, and THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSI. (My dear Henry Miller again). I crossed Russia with ANNA KARENINA in my bag. I travel to Latin America with Marquez. I rarely recall what a guidebook said and I'm not so good at taking directions or remembering to go to somebody's favorite restaurant, but books. These I take with me. Jane Austen for England, Stendhal and Hugo for France. What a delight it is to reread THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME while relaxing on the Ile St. Louis. And on the other end of the political spectrum, I've read Lorca in Spain and Anne Frank's diary in Amsterdam.
This gives me a feel not only for the sights and the sounds, but the soul of a place. It is the writing by the people who live in and reflect upon their own culture that interests me; not what the travelers or guidebooks have to say. I suppose with Kindle or IPad or whatever digital reading device we will soon be using, this will all be easier. You can be in Mexico and pick up Octavio Paz or Cairo and find Mafouz at the touch of a finger tip. Or Klima in Prague.
But personally I like that process of finding and discovery and deciding which book will suit my mood. I like my way of sampling, browsing. Deciding what book to take where. I know I'll be a convert soon. I'll want to download THE PALACE WALK in case I've forgotten to pack it on my way to the pyramids or UNDER THE VOLCANO as I head back to Mexico. But I've enjoyed the process, the decision making. It's like figuring out which friends you want to travel with and for how long. But no matter what wherever I go, suggested reading goes with me.
Today at the bookstore a clerk recommended for Turkey A MIND AT PEACE BY Tanpinar. Not Pamuk, he said. Read Tanpinar. So I ordered it because this is the best way I know to really understand where I am or where I'm going to be.