Writer Alberto Manguel looks a lot like Santa Claus. And, if you think about it, the way Santa is to toys, Manguel is to books. He’s arguably one of the most well-read people on the planet, with over 30,000 books in his personal library, which he describes in a delicious manner in this piece for The New York Times: “My library is not a single beast but a composite of many others, a fantastic animal made up of the several libraries built and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life.”
The anthologist, essayist and novelist who has spent his life on the move regards himself as a better reader than a writer. He’s lived in Israel, Argentina, Tahiti, England, Canada and France. In Tahiti, he worked as a guide book editor forLes Editions du Pacifique, “the best and only publisher there at the time”.
At the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival this January, we spoke to Manguel about the intertwined relationship his reading has with his travel, his belt-making days, and what he recommends you read to add context to your travels.
Excerpts from the interview:
Before you became an author, you made belts for a living; one for Mick Jagger, no less?
When I left Argentina in 1969, I had just turned 20. I went to Barcelona, I went to Paris, I went to London – it was still the London of the hippies – and I needed to earn my living. I liked to paint and had painted a belt for a friend who worked as a model. He was seen in some fancy nightclub and someone asked him about the belt. That led to me painting belts for “Mr Fish”, a trendy shop on Portobello Road. But my moment of glory came when Mick Jagger bought one of the belts and wore it to his concert. My life has not been that glamorous ever since.
How have your travels influenced your writing?
Right from childhood, I have learnt about the world from books, and my experiences have almost always come first through a book and then from life. So I experienced falling in love, the death of my best friend, war, and happiness through episodes in books. And then when they happened to me, I could put words to what was happening. I think that this is the magic of literature – it provides words for our experiences. The same happened in my travels: I knew what London was before I had ever been to London because I had read Sherlock Holmes and Dickens, I knew what Tahiti was because I had read Pierre Loti and the stories of Somerset Maugham.
The geography of the mind shapes the geography of reality. We all see what we know already, and we are incapable of seeing something that we don’t know because we can’t recognise it. So for instance, when Christopher Columbus came to America on his third voyage, he saw manatees near the coast of Venezuela and he writes in his journal, “Yesterday, I saw three mermaids.” Then he adds, “But they are not as beautiful as they are made out to be.” Because he came with this mythological, religious, literary baggage from Europe. We always do this. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, he thought he was in India. He knew about India through the imagination of Marco Polo and that great liar, Sir John Mandeville, and so, he thought that he was seeing the things that he was told in the books that he would see.
When you travel now, do you still read up on a place before going there?
Usually, I have read about them before. I know all about India through Kipling, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Narayan, and through other writers who lie about India, like Naipaul. This is my first time in India and I said to myself, “You mustn’t look for the clichés, you mustn’t look for what you think you will see,” and the first thing I see coming from the airport to the hotel is a painted elephant on the street.
When you write, does a place influence you in the same way as reading about it would?
Both. For instance, people and places influence my writing – through gestures and colours – if I am writing a novel. These are gifts that the library of the world gives you constantly. We are a reading species, and so we find stories in everything, whether it’s books or landscapes or people. We build stories to fit what we see.
I have a sense that there are certain foreign writers who have had a [full] picture of India – Forster or Ackerley, I love his Hindoo Holiday – and whether these are true to someone in India or not, it doesn’t matter because for me, they lend coherence to something I don’t know.
It’s extraordinary how many Indian writers haven’t read Kipling [for example] because of the imperialist label and that is so wrong. You know, you can apply a label to anything and you can fault anything because you imagine you would have done something else if you had written that novel and the only answer to that is to actually go and write your own book.
Is there a place you haven’t read about that you want to travel to?
Antarctica, before it disappears in the global warming. Well, I know one novel about Antarctica.
How differently would you approach it if you haven’t read enough about it?
I always find my comfort in books – in familiar and unfamiliar settings. I would miss it, because I am not as good a writer as the writers that I admire. So I would find myself incapable of putting into words my experience in a truthful way. I am always dissatisfied with what I write but I am often satisfied with what I read. I have to trust the words on the page. But it’s like with people – very often I meet people that I like and I have fascinating conversations with, and I discover aspects of life that I didn’t know about. A conversation with myself doesn’t have the same quality.
Do you have any recommendations of books that are accurate depictions of places you’ve visited?
For Buenos Aires, Colm Toibin’s The Story of the Night, a very accurate description of gay life in Buenos Aires. Toibin’s one of the foremost Irish writers of today.
For Venice, Henry James’ The Aspen Papers.
For Mumbai, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance.
For Rome, Tennessee William’s The Roman Summer of Mrs Stone.
For London, The Sherlock Holmes stories [by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle].
For Toronto, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.
And of course, for India, Kipling’s Kim.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.