lunes, 25 de abril de 2011

A text from Alexander McCall Smith.

I am one of those people who like airports. Yes, there can be times when the weather delays you; yes, there can be the occasional queue; yes, there might be times when the traveller might wish to be elsewhere.

However, there is another side to it. People in an airport are about to embark on a journey - or have returned from one. Those departing are full of anticipation; those who have returned have the memories of the places they have just visited. All of that is undoubtedly positive and underlines the role that places play in our lives.

The desidere to explore new places is one of the things that prompts us to embark on journeys. It is also often the motivation for reading. When we pick up a book at a bookshop or library, one of the things we are immediately interested in is its setting. Like many, I enjoy reading books set in a place I am visiting or about to visit. A visit to Italy, for example, is made all the enjoyable company of one of Michael Dibdin´S Aurelio Zen novels. Russia obviously requires Tolstoy or Chekhov, and a trip to Mumbai would be so much less fun if one if one did not have something such as Vikram Chandra´s Sacred Games to explain the complexities of that fascinating city.

Occasionally, a work of fiction with a stron sense of place has such an impact on readers that it ends up having an impact on a whole city. A remarkable instance of this was John Berendt´s highly atmospheric novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This tale is set in Savannah, Georgia - a town that embodied the elegance and secrets of the American South. The book´s success was dramatic and deserved - the tale is extraordinarily well told and interesting gripping. But it is more than that; Berendt succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of Savannah in a way that makes the reader believe that he or she is there, and party to what is happening. In other words, it is an admission ticket to a fascinating, hidden social and geographical world. With Berendt´s book in hand, a guidebook to Savannah is barely necessary.

So strong was the sense of place in the book, in fact, a massive number of visitors flocked to the town to experience at first hand the locale they had read about. That no doubt helped the area´s tourist economy, but many residents rather resented the loss of privacy.

In my own novels, I have concentrated on two placez: Botswana and Scotland. I found the former so beguiling, I was inspired to write about Mma Ramotswe of the No.1 Ladies´Detective Agency. She could live nowhere else; I wanted her to express the essence of her country -its beauty and goodness. I hope that Isabel Dalhousie, the heroine of many of my Edinburgh books, does the same thing; she is a product of that city - a mysterious, romantic place -and has qualities to match.

How does an author create a sense of place in a novel? There is no single way of doing this, but there are some things that should be avoided. An author should not write a travelogue; if we want that, we can go to a magazine or newspaper. What is needed is a more impressionstic approach.

Just as a painter can convey a sense of place with a few strokes of the brush, so too, can an author do that with words. A reference to one or two features of the landscape - blue hills in the distance, for example - may say as much as a whole paragraph of detailed description. A few words about a vast, empty sky puts my readers exactly where I want them to be: in the Kalahari. And when I want to paint Scotland, a reference to a white veil of rain usually does the trick.

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