“…me sitting, the butt of my rifle on my foot, the barrel in the crook of my left arm, a flask of whiskey between my knees, pouring the whiskey into a tin cup … drinking this, the first one of the day, the finest one there is, and looking at the thick bush we passed in the dark, feeling the cool wind of the night and smelling the good smell of Africa, I was altogether happy.”
That’s Ernest Hemingway (who else?) in Green Hills of Africa, a novel I’ve read several times just to appreciate (and then be jealous of) the richness of Hemingway’s prose. But I think it was also the descriptions of Africa that kept me coming back to it.
Some people get ready for travel by reading travel books, the kind issued by Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and so on. Other people I’ve known spend time learning the language of the place they plan to visit, which I’ve tried over the years without much success, though I think it’s a worthy thing to do.
For better or worse, I like to read fiction set in the place I hope one day to travel to. The descriptions give me a better feel for the place than the most detailed travel books ever could. (Does a Frommer’s travel book ever tell you to look forward to the smell of a place?)
Some of the best novels I’ve read over the years have been set in Africa, where after all these years I’m headed at the end of the week. I’m not sure why a continent like Africa should prompt writers to do their best work, but that’s often the way it seems.
Some of the best novels set in Africa aren’t great literature, but they’re still fun to read. Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is one of those. It’s actually the first in a series of novels about Botswana’s first lady detective. I’m not going to Botswana on this trip, but I feel as though I’ve been there. I can see it – and smell it – if I concentrate long enough.
The Nobel-prize winning novelist J.M. Coetzee has, interestingly enough, left his home in South Africa and moved to Australia, but his best work grew out of his experience in his native land. His Life and Times of Michael K won the Booker prize, as did his novel Disgrace, both astonishingly well-written books.
I’m pretty sure the first novel I read that was set in Africa was Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and first published in the U.S. in 1948. I remember lively discussions in high school English class about apartheid, and I remember dreaming even then about eventually going and seeing South Africa for myself. At long last, it’s going to happen.
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is about a missionary family who in 1958 moves from the U.S. to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo. Even she writes about the smell of the place:
“Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa. It makes me want to ken, sing, clap up thunder, lie down at the foot of a tree and let the worms take whatever of me they can still use. I find it impossible to bear.”
It’s a beautifully written book.
Some of the best moments of travel are these last few days before I leave, reading about and imagining the places I am about to visit.
I can’t wait.