The power of fiction


Three different trips, three different books. I was on an island in the Gulf of Thailand when I read Tai Pan, James Clavell’s novel about the birth of Hong Kong. Afterwards, I couldn’t stop imagining opium traders and silk girls in every passing junk. The climatic conditions on the beach also matched those in the book, and the boss at the bungalow compound was Chinese. It was a different matter in Dakar. I hadn’t taken a book along, but I found a ­copy of The Three Musketeers in one of the guest houses. I’d seen the film and various remakes, but I had never actually read the novel. Alexandre Dumas had me spellbound from the first page. His language, his rapiers, his romantic sense of honor, his Paris of 1624. It was a lucky find in the treasure chest of stories except that for a few days, I saw precious little of Senegal, which ultimately wasn’t such a problem because I stayed on for another two months.

Moscow was a different matter. Sadly, I was there for just three days, and not for personal enjoyment, either. I had gone to interview a Russian colonel and capture the atmosphere on Red Square. At some point, my client called me and asked how I was doing. “Super,” I said, “I’m reading a fantastic book.” “What book?” “The Far Pavilions,” I said. He flipped. He knew the novel by M.  M. Kaye, he knew me, and he rightly feared that now only an empty shell of me was out and about in Moscow. My mind, my feelings and my soul had beamed themselves to India, to the colorful period of the Maharajas and moguls. He couldn’t forbid me to read it – how could he stop me? So after yelling for a while, he just told me the ending.

Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.