Wednesday, November 30, 2005

An Innocent in Cuba, David W. McFadden
2005, McClelland & Stewart, $24.99
398 pages, isbn 0-7710-5506-4

The fourth in his recent series of travel books, An Innocent in Cuba, follows the adventures of Toronto writer David W. McFadden as he travels a month around Cuba. Meeting its history and its people, the narrator revels in talking to random people on the street about Castro, Che, Americans, Canadians and racial divides, as well as observations about late London, Ontario artist Greg Curnoe, and Toronto author André Alexis. McFadden brings in a multitude of references and bits of Cuban history from his own reading, and a previous trip a decade earlier by a Toronto friend, A. How many other travel books have the author claim he will record every roadside pee he witnesses? Following his three earlier collections, An Innocent in Ireland (1995), An Innocent in Scotland (1999) and An Innocent in Newfoundland (2003), McFadden must take copious notes and have an unbelievable memory to bring in the things he does, from the detail of the day to day, to the social and the historical references that work their way through the books. An Innocent in Cuba, subtitled “Further Curious Rambles And Singular Encounters,” works thirty-three chapters in thirty-three days, followed by an epilogue.

"When one spends thirty-three days wandering in any country anywhere, one’s impressions will change from day to day. So in a true travel journal we must be prepared for inconsistencies, reversals, perceptual error, and corrections. When I told the Spanish ladies that, they said it sounds like the kind of book they’d like to read."

The books read much different than the travel novels (now called “non-fiction”) he published in the 1980s, the Great Lakes books written as family trips. Originally published by Coach House Press, the three collections, A Trip Around Lake Erie (1981), A Trip Around Lake Huron (1981) and A Trip Around Lake Ontario (1988) were since rewritten, and issued by Talonbooks in one volume, the collection Great Lakes Suite (1997). Much more family oddities than armchair travel novels, they were easily as entertaining as any of his more recent travel volumes, and well worth reading. One of them, A Trip Around Lake Ontario, was even produced as a thirty-minute film by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, who also made the rock and roll movies Highway 61, Roadkill and Hard Core Logo (from the Michael Turner poetry collection of the same name). Apparently a film crew followed McFadden and his family during the trip, so each is the telling of the making of the other (at one point, McFadden even playfully “loses” the film crew for a day).

A book filled with observations and opinions, it still makes me wonder: after all this time, how innocent is author/narrator David W. McFadden (when originally writing the earlier books, he didn’t like my suggestions of A Scoundrel in Scotland or A Nitwit in Newfoundland)? Perhaps it means more how he tries to remain open to ideas, facts and conversations wherever he goes in these books, and not have his opinions completely formed before he arrives, no matter how well researched he might be. Any McFadden travelogue tends to get deeper inside the feel of the place he is in through his playful humour, and conversations that would otherwise never occur; McFadden knows how to get inside the things the tourists miss, and is not only a good listener, but knows often who and what to ask. He works hard to record truthfully what he sees, even if some of the stories might make the author appear foolish. Still, whereas the Ireland and Scotland books provided both maps and an index, I’m disappointed that this collection doesn’t provide the same, allowing for a reference to McFadden’s travels. And I think he knows far too much at this point to be innocent of just about anything.

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