Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2021

Travelling Companions, by Antoni Jach

With millions of Australians in Lockdown due to the escape of the Delta variant of Covid-19, the release of a novel featuring European travel might not seem to be very good timing.  But that might depend on what kind of traveller you are or would like to be. I enjoyed Travelling Companions because it traverses destinations I’ve visited and features artworks and books that I love.

This month I was supposed to be taking one of the great train journeys of the world, the Ghan, from Adelaide to Darwin, but this week Lockdown was extended again.  So our trip was suspended, and now we’re booked to go next year instead.  C’est la vie. Other people have had much greater disappointments and heartbreak.  And I don’t mind too much because, truth be told, the Ghan is a poor substitute for the kind of travel I like to do in the UK and Europe.

Which is the kind of travel enjoyed by the narrator of Antoni Jach’s new novel, Travelling Companions.  Just like me, he likes art galleries and museums, historic sites and remarkable buildings; and he likes to loiter in cafés and restaurants and soak up the ambience while enjoying the cuisines of Spain, France and Italy.  He doesn’t get liverish if his travel plans go slightly awry; he just goes with the flow.  He also likes to make the acquaintance of other people with whom to share his experiences, and in all good faith he promises to stay in touch (but of course he never will.)

As a solo traveller, however, he seeks out company — especially in the evenings — and that’s not something I do.  By dinner time, introverts like me are exhausted by human company, and besides, I’ve got a travel blog to write, books to read and — as readers of this blog know — the reviews don’t stop when I’m travelling, not unless patchy internet lets me down.  But our narrator is delighted to strike up a friendship with an American couple called Gary and Nancy, and since they’re doing the same kind of tourist trail he meets them again and again, mostly by prior arrangement.

Gary, alas, is a loquacious bore while Nancy is a sulky one.  In slabs of text representing his monologues, he explains the relationship difficulties they’re having to the narrator:

I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, seeing as you are pretty much a stranger, but then, on the other hand, I know why I’m telling you all this — it’s because you are a stranger and you’re a good listener and I trust you.  I can tell you don’t feel the need to be the one who does all the talking.’ (p.41)

Just as well! (I don’t think that Gary has realised that he’s stumbled onto a writer who’s collecting characters for a novel.  Is this auto-fiction?  I suspect so.)

Antoni Jach is too wise an author to inflict too much of Gary on his readers, and before long we meet a diverse collection of other people. The novel is reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (which I’ve read) and includes allusions to the Decameron (which is on my TBR).

Portrait of a Young Man by Michiel Sweerts (1656)

There’s a Dutchman too anxious to delve into his family history and take up his inheritance because his ancestors’ wealth is derived from colonial exploitation in Surabaya.  Recently retired, he’s questioning the value of his life as a commercial traveller selling spices and coffee.  His existential angst seems to have been triggered by the Latin motto ‘ratio quique reddenda’, which means ‘each man must make a reckoning’.  (If you click on this portrait of a pensive young man by Michiel Sweerts, you can see that Latin inscription on the document that’s pinned to the side of the table).

Is it enough for a life to have been a ‘good provider’ as they say, albeit an absent one?  Also, what constitutes the failure of a life?  He looks down at the art book he is holding.  ‘I’m wondering if the great Rembrandt considered his whole life to have been a failure.  He was wealthy at thirty-three and insolvent at fifty; both his wife and his common-law wife died young, three of his children died in infancy and his much-loved son, Titus, died of the plague at the age of twenty-six. The conditions of Rembrandt’s fall from grace are stark: towards the end of his life his grand house in Sint Antoniesbreestraat was confiscated and compulsorily sold, and all his paintings were confiscated and sold. The life of this wealthy creative genius ended in complete and utter disaster. (p.101)

This traveller is embarrassed about talking too much.  He fears he is self-indulgent but he feels an urge to confess:

‘I don’t know why I am telling you both all of this, though I have been away from home for such a long time, and I haven’t spoken to anyone about anything meaningful for a very long time.  Usually, my daily conversation consists of commercial transactions of the most mundane kind… (p.105)

Claudine, who’s reading Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller bonds with the narrator because he’s reading The Decameron since (ha!) he loves the embedded stories.  She wants company because she’s solo too:

‘If we could travel together for a bit for a few days or so, that would be great, then I could relax a bit.  I’m sick of being hyper-vigilant all the time and I feel comfortable with you.  Could you be my temporary travelling companion for a while?  Would that suit?’ (p.94)

(I haven’t done much travelling on my own, but from my experience as a student in Yogyakarta, I can certainly relate to feeling fed-up with having to be hyper-vigilant all the time.  Some Javanese men seem to reserve a special kind of unwanted attention for Australian women, and that’s without the constant worry about bag-snatching.)

Claudine’s other travelling companion has been Nina, and when she makes an appearance she’s revealed as a kind of Scheherazade.  She tells her stories on trains and buses and over dinner, and this is how she is described in the blurb:

Solitary travellers and a couple encounter Nina, an eloquent storyteller, on their travels through Spain, France and Italy. She entrances them all with her tales, which prompts her fellow travelling companions to share their own stories.

A handsome young man from Staten Island, who believes that life forms exist in other galaxies, vows to never work in an office again and travels by container ship to a commune in Italy. A lonely postal worker from Lodz takes home and reads the most interesting love letters, often becoming convinced a relationship needs his intervention, before delivering them the next day. A woman named Pauline calls herself Kim because her surname is Nowak. Depressed about turning forty, she mysteriously disappears from her own birthday party. Told by people on a journey, these are stories – rich with unexpected wisdoms – of lives in transit.

Travelling Companions is charming, amusing and philosophical – a wholly original exploration of what it means to honour our strangest dreams and disappointments. It is both a confrontation with, and a sweet diversion from, these, the darkest of times.

The Tempest by Giorgione (c1508)

Lest you think that all these travelling companions are erudite, our narrator also meets up with three young women from Melbourne whose entire journey consists of shopping.  One of them thinks she might like to see a famous artwork in Venice, but she’s in disgrace after insisting that they saw the Giotto frescoes in Padua which was such a waste of time, so boring and none of them understood the paintings and there will be no more gallery worship.  

Barcelona, Paris, Venice, Pompeii and Rome…ah, how grand it will be when this is all over and my itchy feet will take me back to revisit these destinations.

You can read another review of this entertaining book here.

BTW Antoni Jach’s Napoleon’s Double (Giramondo, 2007) which I loved is still available.  Readings will order it for you.  Travelling Companions is of course in stock.

Image credits:

Author: Antoni Jach
Title: Travelling Companions
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760804, pbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


Responses

  1. The Decameron has been on my TBR for about 10 years – sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever pick it up! One day…

    Like

    • Oh me too, and #blush I have such a beautiful edition of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I spend most of my life travelling on my own and can mostly do without companions, though it is interesting from time to time to listen to other drivers’ stories when I’m stopped somewhere. I couldn’t imagine picking up companions in Europe, though at times I spoke to people who were extraordinarily helpful despite my absence of language skills.

    I can’t think of a modern Canterbury Tales without referencing Stead’s The Salzburg Tales.

    Like

    • I still haven’t read that one… I think it’s not uncommon for writers to (pardon the pun) follow this literary route, but the different eras they’re written in make them all different.
      We’ve met some lovely people in our travels, but it’s been in conversations that end when we leave the venue. But this book made me realise that for extraverts, solo travelling is a different experience.

      Like

  3. I do more dreaming of travel than actually travelling but when I do prefer to do it alone. I always have interesting encounters although have not been in Europe for six years but still in touch with some lovely locals in Italy. Sweet memories will have to do for a while more. Sure I would enjoy this book. And books are always a part of the journey. Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli’ when in Italy.

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    • I don’t know about you, but I find the dreaming is a great pleasure too. I’m thinking about my next trip when I’m on the plane coming home from the last one, and we start thinking destinations, places to visit and so on from then onwards.
      I know how lucky I have been.
      And yes, books. (I’m a great fan of H V Morton.)

      Like

  4. […] my fraught response to travel books at the moment, but Antoni Jach’s Travelling Companions (see my review) broke through my reserve.  It’s a kind of contemporary Canterbury Tales, where the narrator […]

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  5. Ironically, maybe it’s the perfect time to read about travelling…while one cannot travel safely or far IRL. :)

    Like

    • Mostly, travel books and journalism just make me feel sulky.
      Unless like this one, there’s books and art and music that I can access from my desk.

      Like


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