Host: What say you to young Master Fenton?
He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May; he will carry’t, he will carry’t, ’tis in his buttons, he will carry’t.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, III, 2, 63–67.
Political tourists come in three types, two of them quite traditional, one suggestively new. On the one hand, there are all those people who see in dramatic political developments in someone else’s country a hopeful or hellish vision of the future of their own. Since they set off knowing what they want to find, they rarely stay longer than is necessary to bring back the illustrative evidence—what one might generically call the ‘slides’—for their political prognoses. All the more so if their travel expenses have been paid for by the foreign country’s regime or by well-heeled sponsors back home. What is characteristic of their slides is an often touching humility. There may be photos or vignettes of the tourist being received by Mussolini, Stalin, Nasser or Nehru, but their inclusion serves mainly to persuade the reader/viewer that he or she is getting genuine first-hand testimony. The important thing is that hopeful/fearful future.
The second type, which, however, is not always easy to distinguish from the first, is the (usually intellectual) celebrity. Such people do not have to worry about ‘genuine first-hand testimony’, since the celebrity is, with luck, much better known than the politics with which he or she is holidaying. If the first type hopes to show himself in the shadow of great events, the second expects to show events in the great shadow of himself. For these purposes, the best events are those which, by artful chiaroscuro, contrast the tourist as violently as possible with the political landscape. Since the real interest is the celebrity, it is no surprise that these holidays are usually paid for by publishers or television companies. The contemporary doyen of this form of tourism is undoubtedly V.S. Naipaul, who loudly proclaims all that nice Englishmen now feel ashamed to say about the Third World even when they think it. It is not that Naipaul does not have views about politics, but rather that there is an instructively photogenic touch to his itineraries: Buenos Aires (not Caracas), Kinshasa (not Maputo), Kuala Lumpur (not Algiers) show in sharp, dyspeptic relief the civilized clubman against a backdrop of ‘Oriental’ savagery, self-delusion, fanaticism and stupidity. The choice of locations for Naipaul’s slideshows is politically random (except that they must be Third, not First or Second, World), but they are always shrewdly aesthetic. (Who will buy Naipaul on Belgium or Bulgaria?)
The third type of political tourist has neither ideological nor aesthetic objectives in mind. He has no message to bring home, and no grandiose persona for sale. He is a creature of the media, and his travels to exotic politics are aimed at the acquisition of slides which will be salable on the mass market for the vicarious frissons they offer to consumers. This kind of Jacques Cousteau neither brings back messages from the sharks and killer-whales, nor poses ironically at their expense: he aims to show you what it feels like to pat a barracuda on its behind. With always this humble, democratic touch: you too could have had this type of holiday if you’d bought the right tickets (but there you were, as the Observer advised, in Corfu or Bangkok), and had had the guts to walk alone at night in the Kasbah.
The pastmaster of this third type of tourism is Ryszard Kapuscinski. If you want to feel how it was when Ethiopia, Iran or El Salvador went up, or down (Kapuscinski definitely prefers down), in flames, the désabusé Pole will brilliantly convey it. In his diverting editorial to Granta, Number 15, William Buford rightly observes that Kapuscinski has ‘spent most of his adult life looking for national disasters’. Nonetheless, Kapuscinksi is still caviare to the disquieted general. His speciality is Third World Götterdämmerung, his style ironical and aphoristic, and his authorial persona coolly nihilist. If he has a certain class that Naipaul lacks, he nonetheless remains a broker of historical ‘experiences’, not a prophet in his mother-country. He is fully aware that, shallow-down, his English-reading audience gives not a fig for what occurs in Teheran or Addis Ababa, and he can thus afford to let his irony wash evenly over Haile Selassie, Reza Pahlavi and their variegated adversaries.