Travelling through fiction, Charles Ferrall

The Good Tourist and the Laughing Cadaver
Michael Gifkins (ed)
Vintage, 1993, $24.95

 

Visiting a library in Timbuktu, an actual town in the central west African country of Mali, the Australian writer Murray Bail is told by an Islamic scholar wearing sunglasses that ‘For us, Australia is the Timbuktu – le bout du monde – the end of the world.’ Travel not only broadens our minds, it makes us strange. Or maybe we were peculiar to begin with since, as the Australian poet James McAuley discovered, every voyage within ends with a ‘mythical Australia, where reside/ All things in their imagined counterpart.’ It is not just because of their geographical isolation and relative affluence that Australians and New Zealanders travel more than most other people. As Michael Gifkins’ collection of recent Antipodean travel stories, The Good Tourist and the Laughing Cadaver, indicates, travel is of considerable cultural significance, not just another theme for the repackaging of largely already published fiction. This is attested by the fact that most readers will have a better than even chance of finding one of their favourite contemporary Australian or New Zealand writers in this anthology.

But travel is of more than local interest since it is what everybody does whenever they read fiction. Every story is another country, a place which reminds and estranges us from our own. It is even possible to write about travel, as at least one of these stories demonstrates, without ever going ‘OE’ As Gifkins points out in his introduction, ‘The true journey, perhaps, is in the writing.’ So in Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘The Libation,’ the female narrator discovers a letter left by the recently deceased occupant of her German hotel room describing a novel which tells the story of two women’s love for each other. The two women in the novel turn out to be the narrator and the previous occupant. The physical act of travelling becomes, then, a framing device for exploring the ways in which past and present, fiction and reality interchange.

This parallelism of two worlds can have an uncanny quality. In Shonagh Koea’s ‘The Woman Who Never Went Home,’ a woman on holiday in Noumea sees a man in a bar who looks almost exactly like an old lover or husband who has been dead for ten years. After several days they finally talk to each other and she discovers that she reminds him of someone he once met in Singapore in 1961. Never having been to Singapore, she tells him that in 1961 she was living in a boarding house preparing for an ‘unpalatable’ marriage. The man laughs and she remembers that ‘that was how it had all begun.’ This is just that kind of unsettling repetition that Freud, in his discussion of Hoffmann’s ‘The Sand-Man,’ calls the ‘unheimfich’ or uncanny, a ‘class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.’ One might even argue that all travel (as opposed to tourism) is uncanny since the movement to a strange or ‘unheimlich’ world always returns us home, to the ‘heimlich,’ ‘but a home which has changed. Much the same thing happens when we read fiction.

Thus many of the stories in this collection deal with abnormal or borderline experiences. Michael Wilding writes about getting high in North Africa; Peter Wells explores the paranoia of a gay man and his friends in a sinister Italian town ten years to the day after the announcement of the Aids virus; and Fiona Farrell describes depression in Toronto (in my opinion a city designed to induce that condition). The Good Tourist and the Laughing Cadaver also contains tall stories, a simulated Wild West, a Hollywood party and a bit of anti-French sentiment. I enjoyed reading all these stories and hope to reread many of them. But although this is in many ways an exceptional anthology, I was nevertheless somewhat surprised to find that the traditional dominance of realism in the Australian and New Zealand short story still persists. This is not necessarily a weakness. The techniques of journalism and ethnology, which can be so easily accommodated to realist forms, are also useful for dealing with the subject matter of travel. But if the traveller begins as a realist only the tourist ends as one. And isn’t it always other people who are tourists?

 

Charles Ferrall is an Australian in exile who teaches English at Victoria University.

 

 

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