Passage with a pen
True travel stories written by distinguished novelists at the invitation of Lonely Planet provide a refreshing tonic.
After reading about Alexander McCall Smith's visit to the Freudian quarter of Buenos Aires, one might be forgiven for thinking of it as an alternative world dreamt up in fiction.
Its portrayal - Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) remains omnipresent in the city's media - is factual, despite McCall Smith's fame as a fiction writer.
The Freudian quarter is known as Villa Freud, centred on the Plaza Guemes in the Palermo area of the city, and McCall Smith is rightly amazed that every second door on one street has the plate of a psychoanalytical studio. There is also a specialist bookshop for the movement, and - particularly pleasing for McCall Smith - the Cafe Sigi, named in honour, of course of the founder of the whole process that includes dream analysis.
To cap it all, nearly all 14 guests (many of them writers) at a dinner, organised for McCall Smith's visit, turn out to be either undergoing psychoanalysis or with experience of it.
Accordingly, A Tango with Freud is McCall Smith's natural contribution to Better than fiction, Lonely Planet's collection of true travel tales from 32 acclaimed fiction writers.
Whereas Freud might still survive in other countries only in pieces, in Argentina he's an icon. Suppressed during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, psychoanalysis soon bounced back, its popularity apparently spawned in the first half of the 20th century by a dream-analysis column in a national newspaper.
It was bolstered by universities adding psychoanalyst professors to their psychology departments, and streets were named after the profession's prominent figures. Neuroses became just as prevalent in discussion at cafes as sport and politics.
McCall Smith ponders what lurks in the Argentinian psyche in the search for self- understanding. Does the nation in its remoteness feel cut off from its European cultural roots. "Perhaps they need to find Mother," he says. "Perhaps, they need to find out where, and how, it went wrong, if indeed it has gone wrong."
And does the making of the journey tell McCall Smith something about himself? "It is possible that the making of any journey is revealing in that sense; we do not go to places by accident. Personally, I'd prefer not to know," he concludes.
Pilgrimage is one driving force for travel, whether the holidaymaker's stereotype of sun, sand and resort - or otherwise, and indeed Tea Obreht, in Nuestro Pueblo, refers to a childhood visiting sacred places. Her family of differing religious adherences - Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Serb - was nomadic after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Now, sacredness for Obreht, 27, is a totally individual thing, her unlikely temple for thought being an incredible complex, the Watts Towers, in the middle of Los Angeles. She realises that the shunned builder of this folk art, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, in his spare time over three decades was doing exactly what most writers do: making a patchwork out of fragments, a whole out of disparate realities. Last year, Obreht became the youngest winner of the prestigious Orange Prize for fiction.
A life-changing experience can also occur during travel, as with Isabel Allende after an Indian woman tried to give away her baby girl to her. In Who Wants a Girl? Allende tells of the event during a trip in India. It shook her out of self-pity brought by the death of her own daughter and launched her charity for women and children.
Of a totally different kind is M J Hyland's experience in The Thieves of Rome, in which her Italian language tutor is soon transparent as a seducer of women. He also happens to be an officer with the city's carabinieri, and Maria Hyland gets to accompany him on his police motorbike while learning more about his favourite topic - pickpockets. An exceptionally good yarn, it provides worthy tips for looking after your money and valuables in big cities. The story has a surprise ending.
Criminality may not seem alluring travel reading, but Joyce Carol Oates provides provocative stuff in A Visit to San Quentin. Her chilling descriptive tour of this prison overlooking San Fancisco Bay leaves one feeling quite drained. She points out that the United States is second only to China in the proportion of people imprisoned and executed; at the time of her visit, 700 men at San Quentin were awaiting lethal injections (although the figure had been swelled by a blanket legal stay on executions).
Other authors sharing their tales in settings from Antarctica to Africa, the Middle East and Alaska, include Steven Amsterdam, Peter Matthiessen, D B C Pierre, Steven Hall, Bryce Courtenay, and Keri Hulme.
Hulme's story is set in the same year she won the Booker Prize for The Bone People. Now, in A Tohunga with a Promise to Keep she writes of a trip to French Polynesia in July 1985 for the Fourth South Pacific Arts Festival. Halfway back to New Zealand, her flight heard the news that the Rainbow Warrior had been bombed in Auckland Harbour.
These short stories, amid disillusion and redemption, offer the unexpected and enrichment, the essence of good travel writing.
Some of the 32 pieces - all original and mostly refreshing - can be read in several minutes, which is probably ideal for the holidays.
Better than fiction: True travel tales from great fiction writers, edited by Don George. Lonely Planet, paperback, 320pp, $29.99.
- The Press
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