Adventures in Bookland: Elephant Complex by John Gimlette
Elephant Complex is the best contemporary account of Sri Lanka. There, that’s short and to the point. If you have an interest in the country – and I have, since my father is Sri Lankan – then this book is required reading. It also has a secondary function, that I will concentrate on here, in detailing the sort of preparation, work and temperament that is required to make an exceptional travel writer, and John Gimlette is an exceptional travel writer. What makes him even better in this capacity is that his full-time, day job is that of London solicitor, but every so often he takes off for some far-flung part of the world and brings it back with him in exquisite prose. He even looks like a solicitor!
He is the Wallace Stevens of travel writing.
As to the elements of being a travel writer, first there is the preparation. So far as I can tell, Gimlette has read everything that there is to read, at least in English, about Sri Lanka, from Robert Knox’s account of his 20-year captivity in the 17th century, through the accounts of Victorians such as James Emerson Tennent, through to the many competing and conflicting accounts of the long war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. He says in his prologue that he spent two years researching Sri Lanka before visiting the country, and it shows in his writing. But his research was not confined to reading: he made contacts with many of the most significant players in contemporary Sri Lanka, interviewing them either before he went or during his three months in the country. For that is the next remarkable aspect of the book. Gimlette only spent three months there. That might sound like a long time, but having spent six weeks there myself recently, I can only marvel at how much more Gimlette managed to pack in to his schedule. Now that was no doubt helped by travelling there on his own, but what is even clearer is that, to be as accomplished a travel writer as Gimlette, the first requirement is an inexhaustible curiosity coupled with the desire to always open oneself to the country and the people among which you are travelling. Personally, I can manage that for a while, but then I become overloaded and have to withdraw behind the barricades of privilege that being a (comparatively) wealthy in a poor country allows. I simply don’t have the stamina for human interaction that Gimlette has.
So, while the idea of being paid to write about what I did on my holidays might initially appeal, during my own trip to Sri Lanka I realised that I did not have the combination of qualities required of a great travel writer. Gimlette has. Read his book.