It’s taken me a while to read Questions of Travel – it’s one of those books that demands time and concentration. However it’s been a worthwhile investment; it’s an interesting, thought-provoking novel. It explores travel and tourism; work and leisure; and all the messiness of modern life, but it’s much richer than that. Almost every page triggers thought about all kinds of things, and the prose is a pleasure to read.
De Kretser explores the modern phenomenon of travel in all its complexity and contradictions: travel for pleasure, or for work; for migration, or for asylum. I am old enough to remember the first jumbo jet airliner arriving in Melbourne: little realising that we were witnessing the birth of the Age of Travel, we went outside with the Kodak camera to photograph it. Since then international travel has become mainstream and tourism is a major money-spinner in most economies around the world.
De Kretser is interested in travel to escape. Two characters absorb our attention. There is Laura, not very attractive, resented by her sole surviving sibling, doing what many Aussies do, travelling the world to escape the ordinariness of her life, in search of a culture that she feels is missing from her homeland. And then there is Ravi the IT professional from Sri Lanka, who tugs at the reader’s heart-strings as Laura does not. He has suffered appalling trauma in his homeland and must escape it for his own safety. Both these characters have adjustments to make and both find that painful aspects of their old lives travel with them, wherever they go.
For Laura, with money in her pocket and an Aussie passport, travel is easy, and she can move freely in the places she visits. But Ravi must submit to more than indignity to acquire the tourist visa that he needs to make a quick entry into Australia. When he gets there and applies for asylum there is a long and complex legal process ahead, and he puzzles his colleagues because they associate the label ‘refugee’ with detention centres.
Laura ends up working in what looks at first glance like a ‘dream job’ for someone with the travel bug: the Ramsay travel guide company is a rival to Lonely Planet. De Kretser has a lot of fun mocking Ramsay’s corporate management and the shallowness of the work environment, its phony ‘non-hierarchical’ structure and its highly selective commitment to bringing the traveller to places ‘off the beaten track’.
Throughout the book there are cleverly constructed incidents of barbed humour. Ravi, floundering in a new culture, is told at work that he should contribute ideas of his own for Ramsey’s website, and makes a cautious suggestion. By now he has ventured further into Sydney and discovered the western suburbs:
… Ravi examined the west of Sydney with an eye tutored by the luxuriance of other quarters. He saw that the hills flattened out there and potholes appeared. Even the climate was distinctive: the west was breezeless and hot – the promise of the sea had been withdrawn. In compensation, showrooms grew larger. They lured with novel galaxies: Sleep World, Carpet World. The suburbs streamed towards the mountains bearing a cargo of saris, pho, Korean pickles, Iranian raisins, taxation advice in Mandarin, wines from Portugal, headscarved grandmothers, the purple flesh of ritually slaughtered goats. Thus the known world conspired to offer a reprieve from Australia. Ravi might have been back at Hungry Jack’s at Central. In the west, too, people came from everywhere to consume, snatch a bargain, sink into dreams. They pushed strollers before them, trundling their vigorous, greedy, Australian children into the future.
Ravi consulted the Ramsay guide to Sydney. Surf, museums, sandstone passed in review. He flipped to the section called ‘Secret Sydney’. It provided directions to a nudist beach, a street of polychrome-brick mansions, a gay cabaret, a cafe that never closed. When Nadine called for ideas at the next e-zone meeting, Ravi spoke up. He had noticed, he said, that the guide to Sydney made no mention of the city’s west. Why not feature this neglected region on the web? It was – he brought out the Ramsay idiom with nonchalant pride – off the beaten track. (p. 399)
While both characters are conflicted, Ravi’s dilemmas are more engaging and he is a more attractive character. Laura’s quest is for the love and acceptance denied to her by her spectacularly awful family but she seems too shallow and self-absorbed to evoke much sympathy. Ravi, on the other hand, can’t help but engage the reader’s empathy. He’s caught between wanting to be back in Sri Lanka where he feels a sense of belonging, and needing to feel safe. His halting steps towards a new relationship are sabotaged by his enduring sense of loyalty to Malina, his wife. The poignant sequence where he wants to tell his Ethiopian friend Hana of his fledgling feelings for her, but instead gets bogged down in a discussion about the comparative merits of Macs versus PC, is another reminder that refugees like him are in our midst without the trauma counselling that they need.
The story is compartmentalised into chapters about Laura and chapters about Ravi, and for most of the book their paths don’t cross at all. Some readers, perhaps, will anticipate a romance but their eventual meeting is not like that at all. These characters are there to represent the discontents and follies of privilege versus the tragedy of having the wrong sort of passport, but the author is not interested in moralising and the final chapter is a painful reminder that ‘safety’ can be a matter of luck.
Incongruities revealed by cunning juxtapositions give pause for thought on almost every page, reminding me of Patrick White and Henry James. (This is why it takes so long to read). Laura is summoned to the luxe family home by ‘the threat of Christmas‘ (p. 402); if her brother’s latest girlfriend ‘outlasts the year it would only be by hours‘ (p. 404); her father’s trophy wife‘s ‘eyes were smaller than her rings’ (p. 405). Laura declines to give to a beggar child because she laughed and ‘happiness is not a beggarly attribute’ (p. 185). The child is wearing a faded T-shirt labelled ‘Intel inside’.
This is an infinitely better book than The Lost Dog. Highly recommended.
Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: Questions of Travel
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2012
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.95