Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the January 2020 issue

Road Stories: International Writing on Travel

In a way, every literary work is a travel story. Readers seek to be transported; authors oblige, serving as guides through unfamiliar territory, charting characters’ journeys through setting and plot. Reading in translation offers enhanced vicarious travel, in that the translator has navigated not only a text but a language, reporting back in the form of a new rendition.

This month we’ve traveled back in time and through our archives to bring you compelling tales of international journeys. Some of the writers here document their own trips, while others invent characters and send them on the road. The destinations here range from Corsican graveyards to Indian train terminals, and the methods of transit from the mundane to the monstrous; but all nine writers map the response to dislocation and the changes it brings.

We open with W. G. Sebald’s “Campo Santo,” a characteristically hybrid work blending memoir, history, and travelogue. In this excerpt from what was planned as a book-length collection on Corsica, the German master clambers through a ruined cemetery and finds his thoughts turning to death and remembrance. Sebald’s untimely death in a car crash lends another mournful layer to his meditation.

Sebald’s lyricism stands in stark contrast to Witold Gombrowicz’s dyspeptic account of his travels in Argentina. Arriving in Argentina for a planned brief visit on the eve of World War II, the great Polish writer was stranded there when Germany invaded Poland; he remained in exile in Argentina for over twenty years. In an excerpt from his Peregrinations in Argentina, the grouchy author swings from annoyance to ennui as he finds fault with the pampas (“nauseatingly boring”), the Andes (“terrifying”), and even Borges (“not very original”); but the biliousness is leavened with wit and Gombrowicz’s  singular takes on everything from national character to travel itself.

Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener describes quite different South American trips in her account of seeking a true experience with the visionary ayahuasca. Fending off nausea, competitive shamans, and her own skepticism, she treks to the Amazonian jungle in search of enlightenment, tunneling deeper and deeper into both the terrain and her own psyche. Wiener published her first English-language collection, Sexologies, last year.

The trope of the road trip is represented here by the Argentine comic artist Liniers. Liniers, who draws himself as a man-size rabbit, records a car trip through eastern Canada. Unlike Gombrowicz, Liniers and his partner are generally charmed by all they see, and his cheerful account captures both the beauty and kitsch awaiting travelers. Liniers’s daily strip Macanudo made him a star in his native Argentina; it’s now syndicated in the US as well.

Norway’s Laila Stien portrays a group of Sami herders driving their reindeer from Norway’s mountainous northern tundra region to an island located off the country’s northern coast. As they and their animals fight their way through the annual spring migration, the memory of the previous year’s journey hangs over them. At the last leg of the trek, the treacherous terrain behind them and the reindeer needing only to cross the sea to the island, tragedy strikes again. Stien herself made the trip described while preparing to study Sami, contributing to her harrowing story’s documentary feel.

In a tale we can assume is not drawn from experience, Hungary’s György Dragomán introduces a new form of transit. In an unnamed country, a desperate couple put themselves in the hands of an unscrupulous smuggler. He drives them to the border, then announces that they will cross not with him but with other escorts. “Getting across will be a cinch,” he assures them, but this guaranteed passage would appear to be anything but certain.

Subodh Ghosh and Peter Weber both set their stories in the liminal spaces of train travel. In Ghosh’s “The House of Wax,” a divorced couple run into each other in a West Bengal waiting room. “Unprepared and embarrassed, annoyed and irritated; perhaps even a little scared,” they confront the end of their marriage and its aftermath. Like a number of Ghosh’s stories, this portrait of divergent journeys was made into a Bollywood film, and the startling emotions of the former spouses play out in cinematic form. By contrast, Weber’s “Fish Television,” from a collection of tales set in and around train stations, employs surrealistic wordplay and shape-shifting images. Weber has often taken train travel as a subject, drawing on the expectations and conventions of this form of travel while at the same time dismantling its romantic allure.

Finally, Gabriella Ghermandi’s narrator returns to her homeland of Ethiopia seventeen years after emigrating to Italy. She finds her urban rhythm and pace gradually replaced by the languor she left behind, her surrender marked by a symbolic gesture. Ghermandi, an Ethiopian Italian living in Bologna, is also a noted vocalist and musical director.

We hope you’ll enjoy traveling with the writers collected here. And we hope that your new year will include much fruitful exploration of worlds and ways unknown, both on and off the page.

Read more from the January 2020 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.