South Africa Traveler’s Literary Companion: edited by Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht

More than once I have found myself in a foreign place with the wrong book. I’ll have brought History of the Arab Peoples to Russia, or an Emma Lathen mystery novel to Britain. Or Proust to a beach holiday on Grand Cayman (that was a huge mistake). Wherever it is, I get there and realize that the only thing I want to be reading is something that echoes the place and people I’m seeing around me.

So I was excited to be sent the Whereabouts Press Traveler’s Literary Companion to South Africa. Not that I’m going to South Africa anytime soon, but it served as an introduction to a series of books that focus on giving travelers a deeper sense of a place through its best writing, both past and present.

In this collection, the names of Nobel Prize-winning authors Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee will be familiar to readers with a literary bent. But, as promised by the Traveler’s Literary Companion Series, the South Africa collection introduces us to a wide collection of South African writers most of the world might not have heard of: Ivan Vladislavic, Es’kia Mphahlele, H. C. Bosman, to name just a few of the 18 contributors.

I particularly enjoyed Mphahlele’s “Mrs. Plum,” with its careful treatment of servant-master race relations through the voice of a black maid. And Ronnie Govender’s “1949” was a painful depiction of the effort to preserve one’s humanity among a populace gone insane with hate.

These stories and excerpts brought me into a world I know little or nothing about. Sure, I’ve read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and am early in line whenever J. M. Coetzee comes out with a new novel. But I’ve never been to South Africa. The flavor of its history, countryside, tensions, beauty, and rhythm come through, as they should, at their best through the stories of the country’s best writers.

It surprised me, however, to find that I felt the lack of a travel writer’s voice. Although I’ve always maintained that novelists are often better writers of “place” than travel writers are, reading this collection made me realize that travel writers can give a deeper sense of context than a native essayist or novelist. Context is so often what the traveler needs.

Reading the stories, I kept thinking of Calcutta, by Simon Winchester, which begins with long travel essays both by Winchester and his son, incorporating scene, character, and history for the reader. I now realize that I needed those essays to get myself into the mood for reading stories about Calcutta, to get into the flavor of the place. I found that harder with the South Africa literary companion because the introduction gave the briefest of historical background enmeshed in an introduction to the writers themselves. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the stories, and would like to search out more of the writers’ works, I didn’t feel, as I had with Calcutta, that I was breathing the place as I read the fiction.

The Companion, then, showed me that I have been right in maintaining that, to really know a country you need to read its literature; but it also showed me more clearly than I’ve seen before how very necessary travel writing is for understanding. The collection could have been improved by one excellent essay from an outsider, Jan Morris perhaps, or even a native South African describing the passions and difficulties of his or her country for an outsider who might find it all very foreign.

The only other flaw was one of purely personal preference. Some of the short stories were abridged, which always gives me a feeling that I’m not actually reading the story I’ve been given. For space, of course, the collection can only include excerpts of novels and longer works, but personally I’d buy a slightly fatter book if it could guarantee that the stories in it were as the writers penned them.

Aside from that, however, I highly recommend picking up this or any other of the Traveler’s Literary Companions, to introduce yourself deeply to a place before you go. Whereabouts Press so far produces over 20 of these collections, all compact for your suitcase and rich with literary gems. Next time I travel, I’ll read one of these books first, and then know what kind of author to bring along on my journeys.

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