I can’t remember who suggested that I read Murphy, but whoever it was gave me a whole bunch of incentive: Irish grandmother who rides a bike through all kinds of countries, someone who started writing sort of fluffy pieces and who has become a tough as nails old school cynical leftist, finding fault with nearly everyone.
I read The Island That Dared, A Place Apart, and Through the Embers of Chaos, and found each interesting if a bit of a slog at points. Murphy is fascinated with detail, and with getting to know a place as best she can (while acknowledging the impossibility of truly knowing another’s culture), and that detail got a bit wearing on me in the middle of an impossibly busy term.
- The text that kept my attention the best was Chaos, which describes travels taken ten years after the Yugoslavian civil war. I had always felt the most sympathy for those opposing the Serbs, mostly influence I think by some strong reporting and storytelling (as in telling of stories, not lying) in the British magazine Granta. I felt almost as if I recognized the landscape through my earlier reading.
- The Island That Dared interested me the least, as it felt to me as if it showed the most limitations of language. Murphy prides herself on finding English speakers or communicating without verbal language, and this book seemed to show the limitations of that, especially in a place that has reasons to resist English.
- A Place Apart was the most powerful in terms of its clear anti-violence, anti-war ideology, and her knowledge of the place (obviously) helped make the text feel more authoritative. I can’t put my finger on the why, but this text also seemed not as powerful as Chaos perhaps because of her expertise. I got far less of a sense of seeing landscapes and interacting with people for the first time.
- Grand powers as identified by someone like Paul Kennedy dominate these novels, and her emphasis on them brought my Americanism to the forefront repeatedly in my own mind. Her Irishness (something that she uses to her advantage as a traveler to place herself in a position of being just outside of privilege) and sense of growing up a second class citizen helped give her credibility as a traveler in many situations, according to her reports.
- And about those reports…she’s almost relentless in her pursuit of showing all sides of her travel, from getting ripped off, from having to bribe officials, to hotel owners and others who actively despise her for all kinds of reasons. These might be ways to show how brave she is, but I’m not sure she really needs to brag about that – she is cycling alone through some areas that I wouldn’t dare set foot in.
- These include a harrowing tale of riding in the mountains of Serbia and getting attacked by a bunch of kids, who manage to steal at least one of her packs before she drives them off by throwing rocks at them. This scene is so surreal I can almost imagine it…
- Murphy sympathizes most with those just trying to live their lives, and has little truck with powers that manifest their own global destinies and capitalist desires onto folks just trying to raise their families and be decent people.