Monday, June 27, 2011

Tramp, Or the Art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life by Tomas Espedal

Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson

"Everyday tasks:  wearing yourself out trying to find something new, a new word, a new sentence, a new book."

Espedal is a walker, or more specifically, a traveller.  Rather than allowing the destination to be the objective, each journey he makes is made meaningful by the act of arriving.  Almost exclusively on foot, Espedal has travelled numerous European countries (and well beyond) just to discover new things and contemplate the old. 

As he travels, he analyzes works by Rousseau, Whitman, Cezanne, Wordsworth, and other philosophers and poets who also live for the journey;  he finds a common ground through time with them by either citing their references to exploration or by simply imagining their impressions.  His adventures are not first-class, as he actually prefers travelling as lightweight and unburdened as possible, and his taste is not for air-conditioned insulation from the masses that so many people find essential to relax.  Instead, his only necessities appear to be cash and a warm coat.

Some travel books get way too narrative: "I did this, then I did this, and later I did this..."  No thanks.  This is far more interesting.  Especially in that he's a writer by profession, and he's able to not just explain where he goes but what he gets out of it.  The reader, who may be stuck at home with only a adventurous spirit, can enjoy his work and not feel completely ignorant in the face of his numerous literary references.

Sometimes he talks about the puzzles of travel:  how an enormously crowded city may feel lonely, how a perfectly beautiful and tranquil evening may prevent a good night's sleep, and even how the perfect writing desk in an inspirational space can induce writer's block.  In other places, he expands on the idea of novelty, how it's not so much where a person ventures to that brings refreshment but simply the act of doing something different:  taking an unusual route, sleeping in a different bed, or eating different foods.  Routine is the enemy of restoration, and he makes a strong case for wanting to be on the move as much as possible.

Espedal calls the place he lives between journeys a 'waiting room';  a place to wait for the metamorphosis of change.  Rousseau talks about the common sensation that most people have, to get away from 'it' all, but who are unable to define what 'it' is.  Again, the novelty of the new and unexpected is Espedal's answer to what is needed.  Coincidentally, as I read this, Thomas the Tank Engine was on, and Gordon the big engine came to the same conclusion:  "a change is as good as a rest."  Who knew kid's shows could be so philosophical?

In any case, I completely lost myself in the travel and the ideas and was completely envious of it all.  And yet, upon reflection, part of the freshness of what he suggests isn't as accessible as he makes it out to be.  Sure, it'd be swell to explore without itinerary or restrictions, yet who actually can do that for more than a few weeks here and there?  To travel off the beaten path also means being inaccessible to those who may need you;  most people have some sort of commitments to fulfill. 

Don't get me wrong, I don't deny the beauty of the journey.  In fact, he's the only writer who has put into words the joy I feel at two small hotels that I escape to on occasion, alone, just to hear myself think.  And I definitely sense the Nordic feel of his work that reminds me, somehow, of the character of Arvid Jansen in two of Per Petterson's novels.  There's definitely a cultural component to the desire for solitude because I've known many people who are completely helpless alone, while others thrive in isolation.

Special thanks to Bishan of Seagull Books of India for the Advance Review Copy.

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