Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Travels in the Interior of Africa, by Mungo Park

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First things first. I want to say, unsullied by other musings, that Mungo Park's book is a delight to read. His story is remarkable; it is his writing, though, that won my mind. He is frank and sympathetic; his eye for detail is complex and yet easily conveyed; and his spirit is (to use the inevitable next word) indomitable. (Thank you, Jenny, for giving me this book for my birthday!)
People are drawn to the "true story." I can't really understand why, to be honest. Certainly the allure has to do with the always-shocking realization that, sometimes, life itself can be as perfectly interesting and unlikely as a piece of fiction. Those three little words that sometimes follow book or movie titles are clearly meant to bring the droves a' running and make the implausible believable: "A True Story." (Or the legal-loophole version: "Based on a True Story.")

I wonder whether most folks believe that "true stories" are really and honestly true; that the portrayal of events in a book or film are precisely in the order and manner that they happened in "real life;" that somehow, because a series of events actually occurred and wasn't simply made up in some artist's head, it inherently contains more truth than a made-up piece of work.

No, even those "true stories" that are told by your favorite uncle at a family barbeque are tweaked to make the telling better, to make the implausible more plausible, and to make the mundane monumental. That's what a storyteller's job is.

Thank goodness that Travels in the Interior of Africa doesn't begin with some such declaration of veracity. Mungo Park convinces me that his story is true in the purest sense, which is not to say the literal sense.

Whether his story is true or not doesn't matter a whit. Do I believe that he could carry the entirety of his travel journal in the brim of his hat at the end of his journey? Not really. That's the romanticism throughout that makes Park's tale so appealing and appetizing. Fully true or not, his tale is the sort of vacation-in-a-book that we all need, once in a while.

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