Monday, March 15, 2010

William Dalrymple on Travel Writing

In the Introduction to William Dalrymple's new book, Nine Lives, the author writes about the style of travel writing he's adopted. He summarizes some of the stories and concerns underpinning the work, and then adds,

With stories and dilemmas like these slowly filling my notebooks, I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my book on the monks and monasteries of the Middle East, From the Holy Mountain. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to write Nine Lives in a quite different form. Twenty years ago, when my first book, In Xanadu, was published at the height of the eighties, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator: his adventures were the subject; the people he sometimes met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. With Nine Lives I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage. (xiv)

Dalrymple's narrative voice has never been obtrusive, and I doubt that he needs to worry about the narrator making objects of those he meets. All the same, the shift is interesting in terms of the development of travel and memoir more generally, especially given Dalrymple's influential position as a travel writer and reviewer.

The book:
Dalrymple, William. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.