Wednesday, April 30, 2008

John Gimlette

John Gimlette is the author of At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig and Theatre of Fish -- both nominated by the New York Times as being among the "100 Notable Books of the Year" -- and the newly released Panther Soup, which follows a wartime journey through France, Germany and Austria.

He is a regular contributor to the travel sections of the Daily Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian. He also contributes to other travel titles, including the Conde Nast Traveller and Wanderlust.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Most of my reading relates to research for the book I am working on. My next book is about Guyana, and so I am reading Seductive Poison, an account of the events that led to the Jonestown Massacre. It's not particularly well-written and it sometimes feels like watching a train crash in slow motion. Nonetheless it's quite an important book, demonstrating how easily a large and vulnerable section of society were brain-washed by the crank, Jim Jones.

My researches also took me to Evelyn Waugh's account of his travels in Guiana (as it was then), called Ninety-Two Days, published in 1934. It's an interesting book in that it opens up the debate as to what travel writing really is. Some say it's about the writer and his interaction with environment. Others like me prefer to see less of the writer and more of the country. In Ninety-Two Days, it's the former, and the old colony is filtered through Waugh's peculiar misanthropy. It's obvious that he didn't do any research, and the reader is as much in the dark as he was as to why things were the way they were. Nowadays, I don't think a publisher would touch this book but for the author's celebrity status (which Waugh was supremely conscious of). On second thought, for that reason alone, they'd probably be falling over themselves to get their paws on it.

The best book I've read recently is John Stedman's Expedition to Surinam which was first published in 1796. Stedman was half-Scottish, half-Dutch and he was sent as part of a Dutch expeditionary force to put down a massive slave revolt in Surinam between 1772 and 1777. It's a story of extraordinary violence and hardship (nearly all the soldiers perished in the South American jungle) but it's also a curiously modern tale, full of humanity and sympathy for the slaves. Stedman's own time there is complicated by the fact that he falls in love with a slave girl and marries her. Sadly, it does not turn out well ... A fabulous book, written with great compassion and humour.
Visit John Gimlette's website.

--Marshal Zeringue