Why We Write Books
Understanding Bolivia: A Traveller’s History, by Vivien
Lougheed, Harbour Publishing, Madeira
Park, B.C. 2008 223 pp. paperback.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself reading and then reviewing a novel by a Canadian writer named Bill Gaston. The novel, which Gaston had titled The Order of Good Cheer, was a good read, and better, maybe, a decently well-constructed piece of writing with a couple of grating flaws that allowed one to see some of the scaffolding on which its fictions rested.
While I was reading Gaston’s book, and wondering, as I usually do when I’m reading fiction, just exactly how in hell a fiction writer can presume to know, say, what a historical Samuel de Champlain was thinking during the winter of 1607, a profoundly non-fiction book called Understanding Bolivia showed up in my mailbox. While I was wondering why novelists aren’t required to provide bibliographies to substantiate their fictions and why the sources of novels’ incidents and events aren’t required to be footnoted and subject-indexed, I opened Understanding Bolivia and read the first chapter.
That’s when I began to wonder why I’d been asked to read and review a novel like Gaston’s, good as it is, rather than a book that seemed like it might be willing to make an attempt on giving a bullshit-free view of what’s going on in Bolivia. Bolivia, you see, is a real place, a lynch-pin country in the middle of a continent which is unstable in every conceivable sense right now: politically, culturally, economically, you name it. It is closer to going up in flames right now than it has been in 35 years, with Hugo Chavez, and the World Bank each manning a gasoline hose and Bolivia’s remarkable Indian president, Evo Morales, with the first extinguisher. Hugo Chavez, remember, is the guy who makes American foreign policy spooks crazier than Osama Bin Laden, and is setting himself up to replace Fidel Castro as the
Monroe Doctrine’s chief bogeyman, and so constitutes a hemispheric danger even if you agree with him. When American spooks start seeing bogeymen, wars start, as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The sort of people who live in countries like Bolivia, particularly the vulnerable ones, tend to get squished, beaten, blown up, killed. If they’re lucky, they get starved and bullied and ostracized the way Cubans have been for the last 40 years.
Understanding Bolivia is a tourist guide for people who want to visit Bolivia and not look and act like
they tumbled off a chocolate truffle truck wearing a princess tiara. Its author, Vivien Lougheed, is about the least princess-like female you’re ever going to run across, and that’s meant as a compliment both in the literary and personal sense. She’s travelled alone in a lot of places where women travelling alone
usually don’t do well: Iran, Tibet, Central America, and Northern B.C. most grizzly-bear infested parks.
When she isn’t travelling alone, she’s with her husband John Harris, Canada’s most under-appreciated writer, who doesn’t carry guns and has never, as far as I’m aware, wrestled down either a bear or a fundamentalist.
I’m not sure Lougheed is the only one of her kind, but if she isn’t, she’s an extremely rare kind of human being and I don’t know or even know of any others: a working class travel writer without an agenda, class- or gender-based. What she’s written here—no minor accomplishment—is a guidebook for tourists who sincerely want to understand Bolivia without violating it or making its inhabitants want to kill them. Everywhere it counts, Lougheed is as much concerned with keeping the Bolivians comfortable and safe as she is with finding pillow-comforts and picturesque vistas for her readers.
She’s not trying to warn anyone off, mind you, and better still, she doesn’t presume that she’s smarter or more knowledgeable than an average wary tourist. She tells you what she’s seen, usually admitting it where her knowledge is spotty, and shows you both the beautiful and ugly sides of whatever happens to be under her magnifying glass. She can do this because she genuinely likes Bolivia and its people, and she wants her readers to travel within Bolivia in ways that show them what the real country is, but not at the cost of making Bolivian lives more difficult and humiliated than they already are.
To achieve that her guidebook has to be intensely practical and thorough. By not making Bolivians and their customs seem quaint, she occasionally makes them appear to be lunatics, and that takes a little getting used to. It’s worth remembering that we probably appear to be completely crazy to Bolivians, and that as time goes on, we’ll likely seem far more lunatic to those living in the future than the Bolivians do. So if you just want to sit inside an air-conditioned hotel, eat tourist-adapted local
cuisine and go to a few picturesque events constructed to amuse tourists and then come home to blabber at cocktail parties, this ain’t your book.
The first 150 pages of the book take us from the country’s pre-history into the recent past, tagging many of the high points with references from popular culture that most North Americans will get, like the adventures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or those of Colonel Percy Fawcett (no relative of mine, even though I get a dozen queries a year asking if I’m his son). She also opens her explanation of the Jesuit influences by mentioning Robert de Niro role in the movie The Mission, in all three instances, providing a useful accounting of what popular culture got right and what it blew out of proportion.
It’s a technique that would end up being condescending from most writers, but Lougheed never condescends. If can get over yourself, these signposts are pretty helpful, and they’ll enable you to assimilate what comes next in the book, which is the “travel guide” part: completely practical,
without a trace of the usual tourist brochure exaggerations and equivocations, as in this description of Bolivia’s transportation systems: “Visitors discover right away that transportation in Bolivia is dangerous: roads are hazardous, the national airline has collapsed, bus accidents kill thousands yearly, and no foreigner in his right mind would rent a car.”
It’s in the last 80 or so pages that Lougheed puts her splendid bullshit detector to its best use, exposing her unique political perspective and delivering some of the cleanest information about a country I’ve ever gotten from a travel guide. Her account of the kleptocratic internal politics and the not-so-genial predations of the IMF and World Bank’s globalists is an eyeopener that pertains well beyond the
book’s parameters, mainly because she’s able to show us how it affects people who live their lives in Bolivia.
Lougheed’s laconic writing style is a perfect fit to this difficult kind of analysis, and it’s an unobtrusive bonus to the guidebook materials: you not only know the details of local customs and why things are as
they are within this strange and charming country, you know why, even when you don’t want to ask. It’s the sort of provision that’ll keep more than a few well-intentioned but blundering future visitors alive when they visit Bolivia.
So in summary, this is a very good and very useful tourist guide, and I recommend it for any traveler to South America. But what about the portentious title to this review, and what of my opening paragraphs? Well, this book is a perfect exemplar of why writers write, or at least, are supposed to: to make the world better by making what goes on in it possible to understand. With most novels today I don’t see that motive. More often I see servants of the marketplace, with their lips pursed in the direction of its latest whim. You just kind of know that if the marketplace decided that eating sheepshit was the thing to do, these writers would have brown stuff caked around their mouths. I don’t mean to sound like I’m dissing Bill Gaston on this count, because in fact, his novel was written for the right reasons, even if he did meander a little along the way.
Vivian Lougheed, by contrast, wrote 223 pages of Understanding Bolivia without taking her eyes off the ball once. That’s how we’re supposed to write books.