LITERARY LISTOGRAPHY 1: Cities and Countries I have travelled to via literature (that I would like to visit IRL)

By Michelle Nathan

Hello friends! This month I’m writing the first post of a new series that I am embarking upon called Literary Listography, named after a book that my friend bought me for my birthday last year. This book is jam packed with countless list topics that are left blank for you to fill out, so that you can finally definitively decide who your favourite authors are, which books you think would be better left unread and characters that you’d love to go on a date with (if only they weren’t fictional, *sigh* :P) The result? Hours of organised, literary-based fun!

The first list that I have spent many hours pondering over is ‘Cities and Countries that I have travelled to via literature.’ The below book choices have taken me across the globe without me ever having to move from my cosy reading spot, and have inspired me to hopefully travel there in real life one day. While these books may not always be the best representation of the places they are set in, they’ve opened my eyes to new cities, cultures and experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise known existed, and encouraged me to educate myself about these real places that I first discovered through fictional stories.

1) Vienna, AustriaThe Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to visit Vienna, and this is in large part (perhaps almost entirely) Eva Ibbotson’s fault. (Yeah Eva, I’m singling you out on this one.) I read every book that I could find by her growing up, and as a large number of them are set in Vienna, my desire to visit Austria grew stronger and stronger with each novel that passed through my eager hands. The Star of Kazan is about a young orphan girl named Annika, who is found abandoned on the steps of a church and taken in by two Viennese servants, Ellie and Sigfrid. Annika grows up in Vienna, wonderfully happy with her life, but always longing to discover the truth about the mother who abandoned her. When the glamorous Frau von Tannenberg appears, claiming to be Annika’s biological mother and offering to whisk her away to her ‘true home’, Annika bids her loving, adopted family farewell and steps forward into her new life amongst the elite Austrian aristocracy. But not all is as it seems, as while Annika believes she has finally found the answers to the mystery that has encompassed her since birth, there are always more secrets to uncover and answers to be found. Gah, just writing this makes me want to rifle through my book collection and sit down to re-read this childhood classic. A truly wonderful book with gorgeous and vivid descriptions of the ever-beautiful Vienna. One day, I will see her in all her glory!

2) Brazil – Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Another one that I’m blaming on Eva (what an absolute gem of a writer, ay.) Journey to the River Sea is about a young orphan girl named Maia (wait a minute, this sounds familiar…!) who has lost both her parents and lives in a boarding school in England. That is until her long lost relatives, the Carters, offer to take her into their home, which is thousands of miles away in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The naturally adventurous and curious Maia is elated by the news, and excitedly packs up her life with dreams of exploring the Amazon and learning all about the wonderful plants and creatures that live in its depths. When she arrives in Brazil, however, she is greeted by her self-obsessed uncle, germaphobe aunt who refuses to let her take two steps outside of their home and haughty twin cousins, all of whom have merely taken Maia in due to the money the receive for doing so. But Maia soon learns to love her new life, finding new friends amongst her tutor Miss Minton and a mysterious boy who seems to live in the rainforest that she is forbidden to explore. Together they work to uncover the secrets hidden in the Carters’ home, the depths of the Amazon, and the winding river that could lead them to the greatest adventure of all. I have no idea if this book is even remotely realistic in its description of Brazil or the Amazon rainforest, but it sparked a flame of curiosity and adventure inside of me, and for that reason it will always be dear to my heart. This book also, for a brief while, made me desperately want to be a bona fide explorer when I grew up (then I remembered that I am terrified of spiders and probably wouldn’t last one day in the wild, so that dream was short-lived…!)

3) India – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Oh, this book. This is one of my desert island / ‘if you had to choose your favourite’ / ‘please hand out to those who attend my funeral’ books. (OK, that last one was a bit extreme.) But seriously, I have mad love for this book. The God of Small Things focuses on fraternal twins Estha and Rahel, and how the events that occur over the course of a few days affect their lives in innumerable and inconceivable ways. It jumps between 1969, when the twins are seven years old, and 1993, when they are thirty-one, being interspersed with tales of their mother, uncle and various other family members. This non-linear way of storytelling allows characters to shift in and out of focus, as if they are memories rising to the surface of someone’s mind, only to be pushed back down because they are too painful to recall in full. It touches on so many things; class relations, the caste system, the political climate of India in the late 60’s, forbidden love, family, language, the big things that you cannot control, and, perhaps more importantly, the small things that you cling to because you can. This book is more about the characters and their political, emotional, romantic and familial connections than anything else, but Roy’s vivid descriptions and storytelling have only increased my wish to one day travel to India. It’s just SO GOOD, and the kind of novel that I now try to force upon my friends whenever they ask for book recommendations (in my defence, they do quite literally ask for it…!)

4) Sri Lanka – Monkfish Moon by Romesh Gunesekera

A book set in a country I have actually visited – woohoo! One that I can cross off of the list! This book maybe has more significance than the others as my father is Tamil and grew up in Sri Lanka, but until last month I had never travelled there, so reading about the lives of those living in ‘the fatherland’ (as I like to call it…!) just strengthened my desire to one day see it for myself. Monkfish Moon is a collection of nine short stories about people from various backgrounds either living in Sri Lanka, or having Sri-Lankan roots who have now emigrated overseas. Gunesekera’s collection has a heavy focus on the civil war, which lasted twenty-six years with only brief ceasefires throughout, and how it has affected the Sri-Lankan people in both their public and private lives. Each story is powerful and unique in its own right, telling tales of love, loss, fear and exile. Having now travelled to Sri Lanka, I would love to re-read the collection and hopefully have a better insight into the history and landscape in comparison to me first read. I would also love to read Gunesekera’s most recent novel Noontide Toll, published in 2014, which follows ‘Vasantha the van man’ who transports various people around a post-war Sri Lanka, studying if the tensions that existed during the war are still present, and if this sadly broken down country is perhaps finally on the mend for good.

5) Israel / Palestine – The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby

I was lucky enough to take a module on Israeli and Palestinian literature while I was at university, and got to read a number of wonderful, insightful and indeed very sad novels about the conflict, but this one stuck out for me. The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist is a satirical fictitious book about a man called Saeed who claims to be a ‘Pessoptiminist’ – combining the words ‘optiminist’ and ‘pessimist’ together. The novel takes on the heavy and delicate task of navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by doing so through comedy, as the Palestinian Saeed becomes an Israeli citizen, being an informer against the Palestinian people, only to be arrested by the Israeli police on numerous occasions due to his own stupidity and naivety. He is then drawn back into working for the Palestinian struggle against Israeli rule, only does so in an extremely gullible and oblivious manner. The novel is tragicomic, whimsically fantastical and yet rooted in fact, and perfectly contradictory in every way. It has been dubbed a classic of Arabic literature and I would seriously recommend it to anyone who is interested in the conflict, but maybe finds the factual, non-fiction writing too heavy and dense to take on in one go. While it won’t go into every event in huge amounts of detail, it’s a great first stepping stone into learning about the Israeli-Palestinian struggle that still continues to this day.

Honourable mentions:- The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, The Falafel King is Dead by Sara Shilo and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

So that’s my list, for now! What places have your travelled to through literature? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated, as while composing this list I realised that there are still a whole bunch of countries that I still need to check off of my to-read and to-visit lists…!

Sources for images

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Monkfish Moon by Romesh Gunesekera

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby


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