A finalist for the 1995 Observer Young Travel Writer Competition, Toby Green wrote two travel books in his early career, Saddled with Darwin (1999) and Meeting the Invisible Man (2001). Saddled with Darwin tells the story of a 6000-kilometre journey, retracing Charles Darwin's voyage in South America as far as possible on horseback. Meeting the Invisible Man interweaves journeys in Senegal, Guinea-Conakry and Guinea-Bissau in search of magic charms with the history of this region which was the first centre of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Both books were reissued in new editions by Faber & Faber in January 2009 as "Faber Finds".
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Saddled with Darwin
In 1996, Toby Green began a tricky journey. With a knowledge of horses largely confined to losing ventures into the betting shop, he decided to retrace Charles Darwin's route in South America on horseback.
Funded by a scholarship from the Heineken Beer Company, he set out from Brazil in September 1996, and travelled for over a year. Saddled with Darwin tells the story of this journey in the last moment before the era of GPSs, mobile phones or the Internet -- a sort of marker for the speed of change since. The book also has a historical side, recounting how the continent which helped to shape Darwin's own theories has since itself changed, in part because of the scientific revolution instigated by those ideas. The book was widely reviewed and went into multiple translations.
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Meeting the Invisible Man
Meeting the Invisible Man tells the apparently eccentric story of Toby Green's journey in 1999 and 2000 in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry in search of magic charms of invisibility and invulnerability.
Green travelled with his Senegalese friend El Hadji, whom he had met in 1995. The two went in search of marabouts, holy men trained in the Islamic faith but also retaining some contact to older ritual traditions.
As well as telling the story of this strange journey in search of powers of invisibility and invulnerability, Meeting the Invisible Man delves into the history of this region which was once the capital of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a history which has profoundly affected its subsequent development.
This book shaped Green's subsequent career, embarking on a PhD in the history of the region in which he had travelled for the book in 2002, leading to subsequent work.
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Some reviews of Saddled with Darwin:
An epic journey and an astonishing tale. - WG Sebald
Darwin's writing, which bubbles through Green's humorous and poignant work, gives this book a depth rare in the travel genre. It could be a classic. - Independent
An excellent and thought-provoking book. - Guardian
Funny, erudite and highly eccentric all the splendours and miseries of South American travel are here Eric Newby
A very good read indeed. His epic journey takes him through wild and wonderful scenery, his style is clear and unaffected, he brings to life the people he meets and he treats the whole gruelling adventure with unquenchable enthusiasm. A pleasure Michael Palin
I enjoyed this book enormously. In some ways, Toby Green has trumped Bruce Chatwin. - Geoffrey Moorhouse
Saddled with Darwin provides much food for thought...if Toby Green should pick up the reins again, his story will be worth watching out for. - TLS
Well researched, carefully observed, lyrically written, Saddled with Darwin has some wonderful moments which remind you of why people travel and write about it. - Sunday Times
If you are at all interested in natural history, Saddled with Darwin should not be missed. - Financial Times
Toby Green has sensitively caught the essence of unselfish rural South America and gently and elegantly raises some of the paradoxes arising from our understanding of evolution. - Lord Winston
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Some reviews of Meeting the Invisible Man:
Very beautifully, very sensitively written...[Green is] someone who knows Africa - Ryszard Kapuscinski
It cannot be a coincidence that so many high-class travel writers, especially British ones, make impressive use of understatement Toby Green, not yet 30, is a case in point. His first book, Saddled with Darwin, was shortlisted for various prizes, and his second one, Meeting the Invisible Man, is an excellent follow-up. Financial Times
A fascinating, intimate, lively account of a magical struggle to know the unknowable. Irish Times
[A] highly evocative work Daily Herald
Green is a brave and intrepid traveller a hard won and convincing portrait of the challenges and few pleasures to be had in one of the least-known parts of Africa emerges [with] some excellent observations and discoveries. Sunday Times
Green has a deep understanding of his territory. Independent
Enthralling...Green expresses himself with extraordinary originality and brio [he] avoids judging or patronising anyone South China Morning Post
Hard to put down TLS
An honest, engaging and witty romp through West Africa. Sunday Telegraph
To call Toby Greens Meeting the Invisible Man merely a fine piece of travel writing does not begin to do justice to the ambition (and achievement) of this remarkable book this book really defies categorisation. The reader is conveyed on a bizarre and exhilarating journey into unknown waters that takes in such diverse themes as the grim history of the slave trade, the awe-inspiring scenery of West Africa and the literary invisible men of HG Wells and Ralph Ellison Amazon.co.uk
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SADDLED WITH DARWIN
FOREWORD TO THE SECOND EDITION
Copyright Toby Green, 2009, All Rights Reserved
Life abounds with coincidences. Most of these are soon forgotten, but sometimes they stick. On February 12th 1809, Charles Darwin was born in the market town of Shrewsbury, county town of Shropshire, on the Welsh borders. I was born on the same day 165 years afterwards, and now, many years after I committed myself to the lunacy of retracing Darwins footsteps in South America on horseback in spite of not knowing how to ride a horse, I too find myself living in Shrewsbury. In my darker moments, such similarities to my first chosen subject can seem a little too eerie.
This year, 2009, therefore marks the 200th anniversary of Darwins birth. Anniversaries may seem to mean very little these days, except as an opportunity for the marketing of culture and the selling out of the ideals and principles on which that culture is based. But in Darwins particular case the anniversary does offer a helpful moment to take stock. For he has become the keystone of contemporary ideology, his ideas at the heart of our understanding not only of the nature of biological life but also, increasingly, of cultural and social exchange. Yet Darwin is not only a defining figure in the history of modern ideas: for others he is a target, the bête noire for creationists who see him as representative of the philosophy which has eroded the sanctity of divine creation.
These ideas did not spring from a vacuum. They derived in large part from the intellectual and scientific atmosphere of Victorian England, where the natural world was being examined as never before and radical ideas being promoted to challenge the biblical interpretation of creation. However, they stemmed also from the time which Darwin spent aboard HMS Beagle as a naturalist. Darwins three and a half years in South America made him who he was. His first-hand collecting expeditions and the privilege of studying innumerable species in their natural habitats were essential parts of the life experience which eventually led to his developing the theory of evolution by natural selection. Taking time to think about the places where those ideas first germinated, and about the changes which those ideas have helped to precipitate in these places, may be as good a way as any of assessing their value and their potential future impact in the world as a whole.
That was one of the motivating factors behind my decision to leave the UK at the age of 22 to retrace Darwins route on horseback. I first conceived of the journey and the book I might write about it as a sort of signpost for the process of change which had enveloped South America in the 165 years between Darwins journey and my own. And here is an irony, for the book was only published 10 years ago, and yet already it may serve as a marker not only of the changes between Darwins time and our own, but also of just how far and how fast the world has changed in that decade. Today, it can be read as a reminder of what we once were, so recently, and of how much and how irrevocably we are changing.
For Saddled with Darwin describes a type of journey which may never be done in the same way again. Begun in September 1996, it took place before email became an all-pervasive form of technology, before GPSs were must-have accessories for adventurous travellers, before everyone had a mobile phone, and before international telephone calls became virtually free on the Internet. For a year, I travelled without any electronic devices; I was not a slave to checking an email account; it was difficult and expensive to make international telephone calls; I simply arranged several postes restantes where I would try and check my letters over the coming year, and left once or twice I arrived at the post offices too late, and the letters had already been sent back to Europe.
This shortage of communications was no handicap. It was in fact a freedom. When I arrived at a farm or rural village, the very fact that I rode a horse created an instant point of connection between myself and my hosts. The horse was something with which many could identify. It signified that I was not a fly-in, fly-out sort of traveller. I dont doubt that it was this which led to people sharing their life stories with me on such a regular basis. I was someone to whom they might be able to relate.
But all the barriers which my mode of transport broke down would at once have been lifted even higher if I had had a GPS to consult rather than asking directions from local people, or if I had constantly been eyeing a mobile phone. Though I did not realise it at the time, the sort of journey I was making, and the sort of freedom I wanted from daily constraints, would have been impossible just two or three years later. In 2000, when I was researching my second book, Meeting the Invisible Man, I used internet connections in the highlands of Guinea and in the Casamance region of Senegal to provide updates on my progress.
The developments of the past decade have not been merely electronic. Governments have overseen radical changes. In Argentina, the economic collapse of December 2001 created chaos and deepened the misery of the urban underclass. Many of the roots of this collapse can be seen in this book, in the daily tales of mass corruption and cynicism which accompanied the Menem years in Argentina. Though Menem was not president at the time of the collapse, there is no doubt that the problems of Argentina derived from the gross corruption which existed under his watch.
Thankfully, in Chile the changes have been positive. In the past ten years a major improvement programme has seen the paving of many roads which were unpaved when I travelled. This is great news for people in remote areas who need good access to education and medical facilities, and quicker public transport. But for a rider attempting a journey as long as this, it would have led to many problems. These would have included the soreness of the horses feet, wastage of horse shoes, and danger from the greater volume of traffic. I still remember the terror with which I crossed the dual carriageway of the bridge over the River Bío-Bío which led to Concepción in southern Chile; such experiences might be more frequent for the rider who attempted the journey today than they were for me.
Looking at Saddled with Darwin now, however, the most important vector of change which the book picked up upon was neither electronic nor developmental. It related instead to something that today is broadly accepted, but which back then was a subject which still had not fully reached the mainstream: this is the reality of global warming.
As I travelled over a decade ago, it became apparent to me that this phenomenon had already begun changing landscapes and livelihoods. There were several key moments when the reality struck home. As I rode south from Bahía Blanca in Argentina, on the edge of the great Patagonian wastes, I stayed at blasted farms where the fields had become sand. Limp strands of wheat hung still in the heat. Blasts of hot air thundered through the empty barns where once the crops had been stored, in fairer times. In Uruguay, people told of labourers dropping dead in the summer heat, as the temperatures rose, and their bodies could not adapt. In Chile this picture of heat was drowned by the worst rains in decades, with an El Niño event so serious that the world began to take notice.
On the long, lonely roads, when I had no one to talk to but my horses, I began to ask myself what Darwin would have made of these changes precursors, as it turned out, to the unpredictable weather patterns which have since become ever more noticeable. The late 20th century was a time when ecosystems were changing, irreversibly, and when numerous species were threatened across the planet. The very biodiversity which had underpinned Darwins theory in The Origin of Species was being eroded.
The picture I brought back to the UK was one of great change, and instability. I returned in 1997, the year when the ill-fated Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change was signed. I was determined to make these environmental changes, and the ways in which they reflected Darwins wider theory and might relate to it, central to the book I wrote of the journey. At the time, whilst of course global warming was on the political horizon, it was still usually dismissed as a serious danger. Saddled with Darwin attempted to deal with the subject head-on: and in this larger sense too, in the way in which the debate on global warming and on the prospects of collective survival have affected public consciousness since 1999, the book may stand as an indicator of how far ideas and imperatives have changed. For the questions which it asks seem even more relevant today than they did then.
Yet one of the things I love best about this book has nothing to do with its discussion of global warming or historical changes. What really caught peoples imagination was, I believe, the books youthful optimism, its undiluted bloody romanticism. This is a book written by a 23-year-old, and it shows. The prose is at times too purple; metaphors jar; that young, idealistic author, sitting hammering out the first draft to the sound of scratchy old copies of Carlos Gardels tango music, is quite happy to take wild pot-shots at an éminence grise such as Richard Dawkins, where today his wiser (?) elder would take a safer route. But all these qualities also give the book vim and optimism. They make it come alive, and mean that in spite of the historical sadnesses and environmental difficulties which are recounted, the overriding feeling on finishing it is one of optimism, not despair. And in todays world, where despair and prophets of doom are so easy to come by, this is not an inconsiderable quality.
Writing a book is an exhausting process. The day after I finished the final draft of Saddled with Darwin I came down with glandular fever; while I had not fallen ill once throughout my journey, the writing had exacted its toll. At the time I still had romantic notions about books, and had not understood the selfish and all-consuming commitment which producing them requires. That bout of illness forced me to revise my ideas.
Six months later the book was published, and I felt that I had purged the whole experience at last. Shortly afterwards, in November 1999, I had the opportunity to travel to Norwich to interview the German writer, WG Sebald. Sebald had provided a supportive quote for my books publicity, and he was a writer I admired immensely. I re-read his newly published book on the train from Liverpool Street, watching the autumnal wind blow the dead leaves off the trees of the plains of East Anglia. I was still sufficiently deluded, and ambitious, not to have grasped the contradictions between the writers aim to touch on truth and the tawdry reality that success produces an ever greater distancing from that truth. I was keen to meet someone who had been so successful, and yet wrote such beautiful and profound books.
I met Sebald in his office on the ground floor of a 60s building at the University of East Anglia. It was a bitterly cold day, and Sebald had put the heating on high. His face was flushed, but soon we were otherwise at ease. As he spoke, I found that he was not as confident as I had expected. His books were infused with a great melancholy, a sense of loss and distress, and there was more than something of this in the person before me. It was not a quality which I had expected.
When the interview was winding down and I had switched off the dictaphone, Sebald began to talk about his new projects, his longing to escape from the university and find some peace, to start again.
Do you not think this has all been good for you? I asked him.
He looked at me candidly: It has all been very bad for me, he said. He was constantly being sent books to read and provide quotes for. Egos always needed massaging, and in spite of himself, and his sense of dignity, it was impossible that his own was immune from this.
As a young writer, this was something of a reality check. It was easy to be swept away, and not to realise the pain, the constant battle with conscience, the sheer difficulty which the process of writing involved. The image of this deeply humane man, traumatised by his own success, hurt beyond repair by his own experience of writing, was chastening. I kept it close by for some time, and two years later, when I visited Chile in June 2001 for the first time since my return from my journey, I recalled it again.
On that visit I made my way to the small town of Litueche, where a friend had invited me to speak at a cultural centre. I spoke about my book, whose South American edition had appeared less than a year before. More than anything else, I wanted to see Martillo, my old beloved horse with whom I had shared so much in southern Chile, and who I had sold to a farmer near the town. But life was not so straightforward; the farmer and his best friend had been offended by the way I had described our drinking bouts He got married and his wifes very religious was the way my friend put it and did not want to see me again. It was then that I first fully grasped, and articulated to myself, the often irreconcilable tension that exists between writers and their material.
Less than six months later, WG Sebald died in a car crash, apparently after suffering a heart attack. When I thought back to this exchange, I had no doubt that it was these very inner conflicts, between the peace needed to write and the requirements made of the writer, which had killed him. Perhaps Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese modernist who died penniless and unknown in Lisbon in 1935 had dealt more kindly with his own creative skill. On Pessoas death, his masterwork of extended prose, The Book Of Disquiet, was found in a suitcase, in scraps, and had to be reassembled painstakingly by editors. In it, Pessoa or his alter ego Bernardo Soares recounted that he preferred to fail having known the beauty of flowers than to triumph in a wilderness, for triumph is the blindness of the soul left alone with its worthlessness.
I did not mention these exchanges with Sebald in the interview when it was published, for they would have been a breach of confidence. Of course they still are. But I hope that he would not have disapproved too forcefully of his difficulties helping to make sense of the terrible business of writing, and of a young writers slow journey to both his own voice and to the inevitable compromises which finding that voice requires.
This last journey is the most personal of all those told in Saddled with Darwin, and the one I was least aware of at the time. But it was also this journey, more so even than the travelling itself, which was the most transformative. When the book was published, I was often asked if the journey which I had made had changed me. Of course, I answered that it had. At the time I said that it had made me calmer. Actually, however, this was a lie. I felt that the journey must have changed me in some way, but I could not pinpoint how and so came up with a pat answer. As is so often the case in life, the nature of the changes only became manifest many years later.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the things which the journey cured me of was what I shall call travelling disease. For some years I had dreamed only of travelling to distant places, of the wild and remote. Yet one thing I saw on my journey was the value and tranquillity of living locally, within immediate environs, immersed in family life. This is not a false description of the life I now lead.
Instead, as I read more, what came to interest me was not just what I had experienced, but also how the places in which I had travelled came to be as they are, the history which lay behind my experience. Exhausted by my restlessness, and perhaps aware that endless travel deprives the activity of the novelty which should provide its joy, my thinking and writing has turned more and more towards looking at the past, at the genesis of my experiences in South America and, later, in West Africa. This change in my writing and in my voice, too, was rooted in the experience of my journey by horse, though I did not understand this at the time.
Thus did my life take an entirely different course to the one which I would have predicted when I rode carefree on my horse from farm to farm and village to village in South Americas violent beauty. Like Darwin, as I venture deeper into the world, I find that my work makes my experiences in South America become increasingly problematic. For Darwin, the problem was that the evidence he found on speciation conflicted with accepted ideas on divine creation. For me, the problem is a different one: what touched me more than anything else as I travelled by horse was the generosity and goodness which I found everywhere, which is one of the beautiful things told in this book; yet the study of the history of South America teaches perhaps more than anywhere else that humanity is a violent species, capable of almost unlimited wickedness.
Increasingly, I ask myself how a species which is capable of the countless acts of goodness which I came across as I travelled is also capable of the many acts of darkness which I have uncovered in my subsequent research on the conquest of Mexico and on the Inquisition. In the end, you can only marvel at the scope of the human condition. And perhaps its here that Saddled with Darwin can be of most value today. In an age when friendship can often seem like a misnomer for networking, of internet sites which call themselves social networking sites, an age when, as the great Austrian writer Robert Musil put it, nowadays we call good whatever gives us the illusion that it will get us somewhere, this book reminds us that not all life is like that. And thats perhaps as useful a reminder as any of the mystery and complexity of existence.
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MEETING THE INVISIBLE MAN
FOREWORD TO THE SECOND EDITION
Copyright Toby Green, 2009, All Rights Reserved
On a quiet afternoon in October 2003 I sat on a rusting metal chair beside a kiosk in the Praça Alexandre Albuquerque in the centre of Praia. It was my first day in Cape Verde and my first visit to the West African region since the events recounted in this book.
As I drank my beer a man came and sat at the table. He was thickset and had a sad and evasive look about him. He carried a black leather bag over one of his shoulders and opened it, taking out bright batiks and pieces of jewellery and trying to interest me in them. Was he Senegalese? I asked him. He was. I disarmed him with some Wolof and offered to buy him a drink.
He wanted to know why I spoke Wolof. Had I spent long in Senegal? A few months, I answered, mostly in the Casamance. He was animated: he too was from the Casamance. I was struck by a desire to explain more. Perhaps it was the gauche openness which often comes to me when I travel to distant places. Or, more likely, my intense emotion at returning to this region in which I had had such transformative experiences opened my mouth. So I told him a little of what I had done in his country and about the friend I had travelled with, El Hadji Mamadou Ndiaye, whose family lived in the main city of the Casamance region, Ziguinchor.
He was visibly disturbed. His eyes flitted from side to side. El Hadji, he said, was his cousin. Ordinarily I might have thought this a sly trick but El Hadji came from so vast a family that he had 40 brothers and sisters. The idea that this man could be his cousin was not so impossible. Moreover the man was visibly unnerved that this greenhorn tourist perhaps knew more of his world than he had guessed. He sat back. His eyes twitched. When some of his friends called by he grabbed the sleeve of one of them and explained the connection. He did not even press his batiks on me too strongly, but accepted my promise that I would be back and look out for him within a few days (I kept my promise, and did buy one of them).
In those days Praia was still a safe city. I finished my drink, pushed back my chair, and walked down the short steep hill from the central Plateau towards the Atlantic. Below was a cove where there was a quiet beach and a bar. Street children hung out on the nearby boulevard which led up to the middle-class district of Achada de Santo Antonio. Outside the National Archive, housed in a former port building, the Capeverdean flag rustled in the breeze of that ocean which had shaped and knotted this place and its history like an old sailor fashioning rope. The dust of this desert island and the salt borne in from the Atlantic mingled above the city and blurred it, like my memory, touched in recalling the spirits of that journey which was so recent and yet seemed condemned to the irretrievable past.
The reason for my presence in Praia seemed to have little to do with what had happened three years before. And yet the two were closely connected. I had come to Praia to excavate more deeply those hidden histories whose surface I had first touched in this book, Meeting the Invisible Man. That world, so familiar to me and yet so strange, had reached out to me as soon as I had arrived and reminded me how in West Africa everything and everyone seemed to be connected.
I had come to Cape Verde to pursue some academic research into the history of these islands and of the adjacent African mainland during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is an unusual, specialist subject, but not one without significance. It was in this region that the relationships between Africans and Europeans began. It was this forgotten corner of the Atlantic that was the capital of the trans-Atlantic slave trade for its first century and which provided the prototype for the mixed Creole communities which later developed in the Americas and the Caribbean. Something of the enormity and sadness of world history had been shaped right here in Cape Verde by Europeans and the Africans who had been brought over as slaves from the Casamance and what is now Guinea-Bissau.
This reality was one which I had stumbled on almost by chance. When I had set out for West Africa in December 1999, what had compelled me was the story which is at the heart of this book: the attempt to get to the bottom of those tales which one hears there every day, that there are mystics the marabouts who can make a person invulnerable or invisible. Even if those stories were false, they offered a window into a strange and fascinating world which was completely different to anything Id come across before.
It was when I began the wider research into the book that I stumbled across this historical back story. There are few books in English about Guinea-Bissau. One of them, Laura Bigmans History and Hunger in West Africa, put me on to a devastating work by the French historian Jean Suret-Canale about the atrocities of French colonialism in West Africa. Then I read Walter Rodneys pioneering history of the region in the era of the slave trade. I felt numbed by the nature of this history and by my own ignorance of it.
Inevitably the book I wrote was shaped in part by these discoveries as well as by the curious things that happened to me in Senegal, Guinea-Conakry and Guinea-Bissau. Meeting the Invisible Man became a traditional adventure story spliced to an undercutting narrative of this West African regions sobering history. This meant that though the literary idea had been for a typical travelogue it turned into a sort of anti-travel book. Unconsciously, perhaps, I became aware that the usual sort of travel literature, with its bluff view of the Westerner among the natives, was born of the same ideological forces which had wrought the destructive history which I had just read about. Determined that my book could not be like this, I filled it with all those bits which are so often left out: the tedium of waiting, the discomfort, the real homesickness so often mythologised as romance.
I was pleased with the book when I finished it. I was still only 26 and did not understand a great deal although I thought I did. I was about to have a rude shock.
The Conservative press panned it. Green writes about the atrocity of the colonial enterprise, sniffed the Sunday Telegraph reviewer, but I failed to acknowledge that the British empire for one had been a force for good. The Daily Telegraph was even harsher: the book was dull and I was duller. I had written an uncomfortable book in a conservative genre; naturally, the people who reviewed it hadnt liked it.
It was this response, as much as anything, which meant that I had arrived in Praia two years after the publication of Meeting the Invisible Man to look into something different. What was it, I wondered, that had made so many people suspicious of the book or of the seriousness with which I treated West African beliefs? I felt that the answer was related to the hidden history which I had glimpsed as I had researched it, a history which, given Cape Verdes early prominence in the Atlantic world, had begun in part right here. That was how I found myself looking so far back into the past in an attempt to understand the present, sitting there at the end of the rainy season in Praia and talking to my friend El Hadjis cousin, as if the spirits were trying to connect us once again.
Shortly before this book was published I met a woman who worked in the publishing world at one of those tedious networking events without which, it seems, no profession feels adequate. A friend of hers was married to a writer who had received the most prestigious award in travel writing for a book about a journey which both had made. In the book the journey was conveyed as a solo trip.
Modern travel writing is most often an ambiguous and inauthentic genre, presenting as a truthful account events which may have been invented or selectively remembered at best. It still struggles to deal with how Bruce Chatwin recast it as mythical remembrance of past and present. My Argentine friend and publisher Adrián Giménez Hutton wrote his first book about Chatwins inventions, interviewing Chatwins own interviewees and presenting an unflattering portrait of someone whose Spanish was so poor that he could not comprehend the books he claimed to use as source material.
In the classic postmodern style fiction suborned the security and artificiality of so-called fact. For writers this can be a tremendous opportunity to make the banal intriguing. But reality is surely always the stronger, as my poor friend Adrián realised better than most dying tragically in a plane crash in 2001 en route to a voyage of exploration in the place he called Chatwins Patagonia.
This tenuous relationship between travel writing and the facts makes the events described in Meeting the Invisible Man extremely problematic. In an industry where the requirements of truth can often be sacrificed for the sake of the requirements of a good story, the experiences of apparent invisibility and invulnerability which I write about here might easily be dismissed as a sort of profiteering invention.
It is however a belief of mine that the tone and style of a piece of writing generally convey a level of authenticity and truthfulness. It is a tone which emerges in the works of Carlos Castañeda and Malidoma Patrice Somé on so-called irrational experiences and also, I hope, here. For though there are elements of fiction in the book these deal mostly with the order in which things happened, the changing of names and places (for quite obvious reasons) and the fact I will admit it now! that my wife Emily was with me for 2-and-a-half weeks of the trip. In other words the fictional devices of the book relate to the pace of its narrative. The unusual events all happened as I describe them here.
And this is precisely what makes the book so unsettling and relevant. For what it describes is a way of understanding the world and our place in it which is difficult to reconcile with the Western rationality that has become so all-pervasive. Here is a space in which consumerism, ennui and melancholy mean nothing. It is a world whose grinding poverty and suffering invigorates Western superiority; but such superiority is a house of cards if, as the book suggests, here in West Africa is a form of understanding which skewers the universalist knowledge and morality of Western culture.
This thread is subversive. In the latter part of the book I tried to draw connections between the development of that universalist worldview and of racism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is this thought which I have been struck by as I have returned to the Cape Verde islands and stood by the pillory in Cidade Velha, the first capital of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, confronting a now peaceful panorama of Atlantic rollers which conceal a darker and still silent truth below.
Some anthropologists have gone much further in drawing connections. Rosalind Shaws extremely controversial book, Memories of the Slave Trade, published a year after this one, suggested that the very motif of invisibility in this part of West Africa is a way of memorializing those who really became invisible, the slaves who departed for America. Some criticise such analyses as condescending and overly theorised. But the experience which I had of invisibility is however given some extra credence by her statement in the book that in this region the idea refers more to a general confusion than to the Western label of invisible something which describes quite nicely what is written down here.
Perhaps then the history of violence and the history of philosophy and ways of forging and experiencing reality are all connected. We live at a time when that desperately complex but vital history has shaped a world whose resources have been exhausted and which needs an alternative. Perhaps, Meeting the Invisible Man suggests, there are other ways of thinking about this fragile orb.
It is one of the most unexpected features of the narrative which may offer us a clue here as to how to move on. As well as being an amalgam of adventure and history, this book is also a story of friendship. The Westerner arrives in Senegal in a position that is inevitably one of patronage. There is always a tension in his relationship with his guide and friend as the precise nature of that patronage is worked through. But gradually the tension is overcome and, in spite of the regular and almost marital tiffs, a genuine intimacy and sharing is negotiated, something which dispenses with the patronage which 500 years of sorrowful history have brought about.
Surely, there are worse models for the next 50 years.
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