In Xanadu by William Dalrymple

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William Dalrymple is one of the few authors whose books I have read all of. With my recent completion of In Xanadu, that is. Based on a journey that he took in 1986 at the fresh age of 21, it is the travel-writer-turned historian’s first book. The journey narrated followed Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu, and passed through Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and various regions of China, including Kashgar in the far west. Dalrymple was a student at Cambridge University at the time, and had received a study-travel grant under dubious pretenses. The rapid-fire journey across parts of the Middle East, Central and North Asia was made during a single summer break, and is comically ambitious in its goals. 

I’ve read and written about Dalrymple’s work a lot, because he tends to focus on South Asia these days (you can read my review of his last book, Return of a King, on the Himal Southasian website). In Xanadu is a travel narrative that glaringly shows how Dalrymple’s style has changed and developed over the years. It’s a book that he now feels deeply ambivalent about, and is in fact quite embarrassed by. As the 25th anniversary special edition was released last year, and I encountered Dalrymple’s reiteration of his embarrassment, I thought it was time that I backtracked through his oeuvre and read where his writing career all began.

In Xanadu certainly does resemble old-style travelogues, primarily by white men, who bowl through the world describing, categorising and judging it and the ‘exotic’ people they meet. Dalrymple writes in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of the book that Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Fleming, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Robert Byron were his ‘literary Gods, at whose altars [he] worshipped with an almost fundamentalist fervour.’ Stylistically, this is very evident, as is his upper-class, male bias. As Dalrymple writes about his younger self:

In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self – bumptious, cocky and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations – is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

Dalrymple is quick to judge in In Xanadu. He doesn’t say many pleasant things about Turkey or the Turkish people, and takes out whatever bad experiences he seems to have had with them through quite personal attacks:

Good looks have been shared out unevenly among the Turks. Their men are almost all handsome with dark, supple skin and strong features: good bones, sharp eyes and tall, masculine bodies. But the women share their menfolk’s pronounced features in a most unflattering way. Very few are beautiful. Their noses are too large, their chins too prominent. Baggy wraps conceal pneumatic bodies. Here must lie the reason for the Turks’ easy drift out of heterosexuality. (p. 71)

He also makes judgments about nations’ motivations that I suspect that the William Dalrymple of today–who has lived more than two decades in India–would cringe at:

Over China as a whole one million people were killed and thirty million persecuted [during the Cultural Revolution]. What I did not understand was how the nation which, for five thousand years had produced the most delicate and elegant art the world ever saw, could suddenly turn face and became [sic] viciously, violently iconoclastic. Paul Scott was puzzled by a similar paradox in India: how could the Indians, the most courteous and gentle people on earth, suddenly turn to frenzies of orgiastic violence? Scott’s answer was that the Indian really was emotionally predisposed against violence; hence his hysteria when he surrendered to it. […] By analogy, I thought, perhaps the Cultural Revolution was as brutal as it was simply because it went so deeply against everything Chinese culture stood for. (p. 293)

Yet Dalrymple is also self-deprecating in a characteristically British manner that is quietly funny and endearing. Such as when he muses on the fact that in Pakistan, he and his female travelling companions were admired as beautiful, being tall, fair, big-hipped (the women, at least). Yet once they reached China they were shunned as ugly, even making children cry. The Uighurs couldn’t believe that women’s breasts could be so large, and didn’t like what they saw.

I had read so much about In Xanadu before I picked it up to read, and found that I disapproved of it less than I thought I would. It didn’t feel outdated so much as of another era, a book that could have been written as early as the 1940s. Like much good travel writing, the scope of Dalrymple’s journey inspires me to be a little bit braver.

(Top image: Flickr/Dave).

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