Award-winning travel writer John Harrison comes from a long line of aviators and sailors, and his books have taken him right across Latin America. Cloud Road focuses on the Inca heartland, Where the Earth Ends charts a journey through Patagonia, and
Forgotten Footprints draws out lost stories about Antarctica. His latest book, 1519: A Journey to the End of Time, traces the footsteps of Hernán Cortés in Mexico, and blends in Harrison’s own fight with cancer. He talks to Shafik Meghji about what first drew him to Latin America, his interest in pre-Colombian Latin America societies, and the writers who inspire him.
Where did your interest in Latin America come from?
I’m never 100 per cent sure what draws you to one thing rather than another, but I think if there was a seminal moment it was when I was 9 or 10. It was raining and my father, probably fed up of trying to keep me quiet, said: ‘Read this – he’s a relative.’ It was Percy Harrison Fawcett’s Exploration Fawcett. Fawcett, who wasn’t actually a relative, is believed to be the model for Indiana Jones, and made his money surveying for people who wanted mineral rights, rubber rights, etc in South America in the early twentieth century. He used the money to fund expeditions chasing wild geese, basically. But very pretty wild geese that sometimes laid silver eggs, if not golden ones. Exploration Fawcett is not the most sophisticated narrative but there are giant poisonous spiders and piranhas and all these extreme things. As a result, an adventure in South America always seemed more real, edgy and comic book-like to me. I think that’s probably how my interest developed.
In 1519 and Cloud Road you go beyond traditional narratives and really bring out pre-Columbian voices: how important was that to you?
I’m not a trained historian, but when I research my books I tend to find, almost by accident, that I become a revisionist historian. Too often the simple narrative, the strong tale, overtakes the most complex one. I find the more complex tale is generally the more interesting narrative, and shows more about humanity. A flawed hero like Cortés is always more interesting than someone on a plinth who never did any wrong.
On the other side from the conquistadors, it’s touch and go whether you would have wanted to be a peasant in Spain, on the end of a very raw deal with terrible poverty, or a peasant under a fairly successful Inca or Aztec empire, but with very little liberty. The [Aztecs and Incas] were more effective central planners and state builders than anyone in Europe at the time. Under them, if you did exactly as you were told, you would be fed and watered, but it wasn’t what we – now – would consider a life.
Do you find that the more you travel the more there is to learn?
In Mexico, even after nearly five years of research, I arrived to find there were whole regions and civilisations I hadn’t heard of. For example, I read about the people of Monte Albán, where the so-called “Mayan” calendar comes from, and realised I had to go there. They had the year reduced to, I think, an accuracy of 15 minutes at around 600 BC. That was a real lesson: as an outsider, you could spend the rest of your life studying Mexico.
In 1519 you write powerfully about your fight with cancer: how difficult was that process?
Writing for me will always provide some kind of structure and sense about life. I’m not religious, so what I make and do before I die is all there is, as far as I’m concerned. I found very difficult to write about personal things but eventually found it very helpful. The cancer impinged on me too much to miss it out in the book.
Once you’ve thought about being dead within six months, not much else seems more immediate. It has changed me as a person; in particular, it made me a bit more serious. Before the illness, I realised I faffed about a lot. Now I think, maybe I’ve got 10, 15, 20 years, I won’t ever go on a holiday to somewhere I don’t want to go or write a book that isn’t the most important to me. It was almost like a second growing up.
How do you conduct your research – do you tell people you’re a writer?
I’m always up front when people ask why I’m there – unless I’m talking to a member of the security forces. If someone later realises you’ve lied about something, they’ll probably think you’ve lied about other things too. I also find that in Latin America people are intensely proud that you have come so far and that you’re travelling alone, which they often see as risky. They are very generous and open up.
Which Latin American writers do you enjoy?
When I really empathise with a novelist, like García Márquez, I want to visit their country and where they wrote about. I read his autobiography, and was so sorry he didn’t live to complete the projected three volumes. He gives you real insights into the workings of a society in stories like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which has a beautiful narrative structure. I don’t think writing gets any better than García Márquez – he actually makes me impatient of other writers who are merely very good. With Love in the Time of Cholera I couldn’t bring myself to read the last 30 pages because I couldn’t bear to let go of it.