Thursday, December 09, 2004

Tropical Reading

Over three quarters of the contents of our luggage will be stuff that V has collected over twelve months to give to people she knows (and people she doesn't know) in Guatemala. This will all have to be lugged across fairly diverse terrain, from limestone slab we land on next Monday, across scrub, marshland and savannah into the Petén rainforest and up into the Sierra Madre.

Our own clothes and other personal effects will mostly have to squeeze into the hand baggage. Part of the problem with travelling sartorially light in Central America is the above mentioned diversity - searing heat in lowland Yucatán, jungle humidity in Western Belize, chilly mountain evenings in Southern Guatemala. So having a place of our own at the end of the journey, with cupboards full of (previously abandonned) garments appropriate to December in Antigua is something of a bonus.

Anyway, in the interests of saving space I have decided to take just one (albeit fat) book along to read this time - Natasha's Dance, A cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. And to avoid the distress of discovering all too late that I'd rather talk to the chicken sitting next to me on the bus than have to pick it up again, I read the introduction this morning, and am reasonably confident that it will do the trick. Perhaps it's rather an odd choice for the tropics, but its self-consciously un-trendy approach to themes like identity are probably quite relevant to the region. (Ditto much idealised and occasionally revolting peasants.)

Figes insists that this little tome is an interpretation rather than a deconstruction of how, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Russian artists and writers embarked on a quest for the inner national self expressed through the medium of refracted mythology. In his efforts to avoid any vulgar debunking, I expect Figes to emphasise just how slippery and self-consuming the concepts of authenticity and selfhood are, both from an individual and from a cultural perspective.

It was only on page three that I came across the first mention of the fact that Russian intellectuals of this period were "alienated", but I anticipate that there will be a few surprises before the last page is turned (or falls out - the usual fate of paperbacks that I expose to these climates.)

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