Crushing your roots under your boots

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 26.04.2024

When Michel Tournier published his Journal extime in 2002, it was meant to contrast not only the more familiar Journal intime: by writing a diary filled with observations about the exterior world, he exposed French literature’s growing tendency for introspection as borderline insufferable. Something along the lines of Tournier’s Journal extime takes place within most forms of travel literature – a subgenre monopolised in contemporary Luxemburgensia by the likes of Guy Helminger and Susanne Jaspers, to which one can now add Robbie Martzen and his (all in all eminently readable) A Pint of Fish Fingers – Tales of a Wonderer.

To let go of the ego is, of course, about as impossible an enterprise as the disentanglement of the observer from the observed in quantum mechanics, or trying to conceive Thomas Nagel’s point of view of nowhere in analytical philosophy – there’s always an I (or two) that observes and filters, that comments and analyses and, as much as Martzen observes the shenanigans of the human beings he encounters, his fragmented travel experiences are always rooted in the here and now or the then and there of his very own lived experience.

It is this discreet subjectivity that renders his at times anecdotal episodes moving: they range from the trying times of his youth, sitting in London with a broken heart while typing text messages on what must have been a brick of a mobile phone (“the larger variety of brick”, as Martzen specifies elsewhere), or attempting to get a decent meal in Greece while being completely and utterly broke, to the more mature tourist, confronting or, rather, confronted with an “impressively aloof waiter […] dissatisfied with the world in general and his own little world in particular” in San Sebastián, on a literary pilgrimage in the footsteps of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or trying to make sense of contemporary linguistic or oenological desecrations such as Cab Sav.

Coaxed within these alphabetically organised chapters – every entry appears to correspond to one place he’s visited, but really conceal many locations within itself, like matryoshkas, Martzen blending archived memories with new ones (“when the best of times and the worst of times collide, memories are made”) –, we find reflections about the nature of traveling as well as considerations about his home country: why do people from Luxembourg travel more than others?

One obvious answer would be: because they can afford to. Another possible reason could be because Luxembourg is asphyxiating and one needs to get out. But Martzen sketches more than just the obvious. At his best, he writes sentences like the following, which ring true to anyone who’s ever questioned their wish to escape a reality they objectively should have no right to run away from: “As soon as you learn to walk, aren’t roots something you crush under your boots?”

Marzen’s tales are witty, very often funny, lined with sharp observations, unexpected puns and elegant punchlines. They make you meet self-critical ex-US-militaries and gun-obsessed Hawaiian taxi drivers, irresponsible park rangers and gentle bartenders, ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, deadpan Spanish shoe sellers and many a drunk, dinosaur fossil tracks, bears, whales, butterflies and the odd poet here and there.

They’re also the metonymised testimony of a generation of ruthless travellers: the real ecological footprint of this fictional collection must be anathema to the likes of Greta Thunberg. Even if the world has become an easily accessible global play field, this generation has long recognised the need to travel less to prevent us from destroying the playfield we’ve turned the world into. Thus, when Martzen pretends that hitch-hiking was “still a relatively safe means of transportation in the 1990s”, he forgets to take into account that he’s a white male trying to catch a ride in company of another white male and that no female writer would’ve probably ever written these lines: it is this kind of universalisation of a very particular yet privileged point of view that makes A Pint of Fish Fingers both a nostalgic and a somehow outdated book. Also, a bit annoyingly, Martzen seems to always care to let you know he’s on the right, or rather the left side of things, sometimes driving his opinions about the US health care system, Brexit and gun laws home in ways so truistic, unsubtle and scholarly that some readers might feel their intellect insulted.

There are moments of redundancies that illustrate that no matter how far you travel and despite local or cultural differences and even disagreements, there’s a common denominator in human behavior, suggesting that, if the main goal of traveling was to find out we’re all alike, it might’ve been best for planet Earth if we’d just stayed at home – although one would have needed to travel that far to realise we’re all the same. A lesson in tolerance that, as worn off as it may sound, is as important as it ever was. In that context, Martzen’s love for the animal kingdom might seem hypocritical for some, where for others, it is just one of the paradoxes of being alive in the late 20th and the early 21st century.

These passages also reveal a certain monotony in Martzen’s writing: those moments where he meets a foreigner that first seems unfriendly, brutish in nature, threatening or impolite, and who turns out to be the kindest of souls, paying him a whole lot of pints or wines or apologising for a road incident. And there’s the sweet lady who turns out to be a racist. At some point, one wonders whether some of these anecdotes shouldn’t have been cut out, for they all convey the same message: never trust a book by its cover or only he who travels will learn to get rid of prejudices.

At some (late) point in his collection of tales, jokes and anecdotes, Marzen complains about those who call themselves well-travelled, insisting that, if adverbs such as well-read or well-dressed do make sense, well-travelled contains the implicit paralogism that there’s better ways to travel than others and that those considering themselves well-travelled are insufferable snobs who think their ways of experiencing and exploring the world are superior to others.

Interesting as this analysis might sound at first – while reading this, I surprised myself nodding acquiescently –, its premises, however, are flawed. Well-spoken always already implies certain linguistic standards that are determined and safeguarded by academic institutions, and that are perpetuated by certain social classes.

Thus, well-travelled works perfectly well as a linguistic analogy to well-spoken: it refers to people of a certain social standard who can afford to hop to different parts of the world as others merely browse through the internet. The irony being that Robbie Martzen inscribes his travelogues within a very precise narrative: while reconstituting his fragmentary and chronologically imploded trips down memory lane, where each memory is the following’s Proustian madeleine, we see a bourgeois evolution of him spending times abroad with no money at all to him booking a (bargain) room at Chateau Marmont or sipping wine in a hotel bar Woody Allen is known to frequent. While this evolution is perfectly relatable, Martzen turns a blind eye to this part of his autobiographical experience – the alphabetisation and fragmentation of his travels, as poetic as this narrative organisation might be, blur an underlying capitalist narrative he’s the first to criticise.

A Pint of Fish Fingers – Tales of a Wonderer, by Robbie Martzen, 2024 Black Fountain Press, 128 pages
Don John
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