Contemporary travel writers

Fernando Dameto. Professor. IE Humanities Center

27 April 2017

William Dalrymple is one the best travel writers in the world today. His work is the perfect blend of humanistic erudition and an ability to bring readers closer to the characters in his books.

Travel writing was born in ancient Greece, as we were reminded in a talk given at IE last year by the Hellenistic scholar Carlos García Gual. Herodotus is considered the father of the discipline, while Pseudo Callisthenes portrayed the epic life of Alexander the Great more in his journeys than in his conquests. Over the centuries this genre has undergone many changes, although it could be said that since the Romantic period the best travel writers have been British. It’s a tradition that began with the multifaceted Richard Burton (1821-1890) and continued in the 20th century with a series of unique practitioners who traveled simply for the joy of doing so.

A leading figure in the first half of that century was Robert Byron (1905-1941), who repeated endlessly that he was not related to the great Romantic poet. This modern Byron died young –at 35, when the ship he was travelling on was sunk by a German submarine– something that did not prevent him from publishing a number of books. The Road to Oxiana describes a marvelous, elegant journey, just what we might expect of an Englishman of the period, from Venice to Peshawar.

An outstanding figure of the second half of the 20th century was Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), who fortunately did have a long life: had he died at 35 he would not have published anything. His two most important works, part of a trilogy that he never completed, are A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. They describe a trip he made at age 18 and portray a lovely, charismatic Central Europe that was gobbled up by German and Soviet totalitarianism.

The latest in this tradition, who still has many books yet to publish, is William Dalrymple (born in 1965). Although his most recent works deal with the history of 19th-century India (Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan and The Last Mughal: The Fall of Delhi, 1857), there are also some travel works, such as the spiritual Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. He is undoubtedly one of the best contemporary writers, notable for his description of architecture, his historical knowledge and his very personal analysis of sociocultural elements.

His two best books in this genre transport us to a city and some religions that have practically disappeared. From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, describes the rituals of the very ancient Christian minorities in the Middle East, threatened by Islam in that region. His other masterpiece is City of Djinns, where he describes Delhi before the big economic boom at the start of the 1990s. His writing is the perfect blend of the humanistic erudition and intimacy of his characters, between wisdom and fatalism.

In May, William Dalrymple will take part, along with Spanish writer Javier Moro, in the “India: Present and Future” talk series, organized by the IE Humanities Center.

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